Ligety takes American ski spotlight

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Bode Miller's Olympic career likely ended Wednesday, but that's OK. Ted Ligety proved again that there is another guy in American skiing.

Ligety rarely draws the headlines and attention Miller does, but the man knows how to ski. He is methodical in his training, in his technique, in his equipment (he is the co-owner of Shred and Slytech ski gear) and in his preparation. Now he has joined an elite club of American skiers where even Miller would be stopped at the velvet rope.

By winning Wednesday's giant slalom by nearly a half-second, Ligety became just the second American Alpine skier to win two Olympic gold medals. Andy Mead-Lawrence is the only other, and that was 62 years ago at the 1952 Oslo Games. Ligety won his first at the 2006 Olympics with a surprising gold in the super-combined. But this one meant more.

"It's definitely different than 2006," Ligety said. "In the relative sense of things, 2006 kind of came easy for me. It was my first Olympics, my first Olympic race. I was only 21. To win there was a dream come true, but it doesn't have the same sort of struggles along the way. It didn't have the same emotions behind it.

"I knew I was the favorite coming into today. Having struggled in Vancouver, and having had a lackluster Olympics up to today, there was a lot of pressure on me today. I really wanted to perform and ski the way I knew I could ski."

Ligety has dominated the giant slalom in recent years, winning 19 World Cup races and four season titles since 2008. Then he went into the 2010 Vancouver Games as a favorite in the giant slalom and ... finished ninth.

He used that disappointing finish as motivation over the past four years to ski more aggressively, to work harder, to become even better. He did. Last season he won the first GS race by 2.75 seconds, won seven GS races overall and made the podium in every GS competition. He won three more GS races this season, plus a super-combined race, and came into these Olympics favored to win at least one gold medal, possibly two.

"He's shown for several years that he's the best in the GS," Miller said. "Especially when the conditions are like this. It's kind of rolling, and other guys are having trouble carrying momentum all the way down. He just carries the skis so smooth, he makes time the whole way down."

As Miller well knows, having raced ridiculously fast down mountains under constantly changing snow conditions, skiing can be unpredictable. As Ligety has repeatedly said, it is probably the least guaranteed sport there is, a sport where the best skier often doesn't win. As he pointed out, up until Wednesday, the favorite had not won any Alpine event in these Olympics. And Ligety's top competition in GS on the World Cup circuit, Marcel Hirscher, didn't make the podium Wednesday.

Even though Ligety said he skied a little cautiously, he laid down a superb first run to take nearly a second lead over the field. By the time he grabbed the poles in the start house for the second run, he led France's Steve Missillier by a second and a half. That meant he pretty much merely needed to avoid missing a gate in his second run to win.

Asked whether it was a foregone conclusion Ligety would win, U.S. teammate Tim Jitloff replied, "Yes. I'm not gonna lie.

"I was watching the guys coming down in the second run and the conditions, and it just reminded me of too many races where I'm like, 'OK, he's got a big lead and he's going to do what he usually does, which is ski solid and clean and come down with by a large amount.' Which is what he did. That's not easy to do, though. Even if it is a lot of time, he has to remain super mentally tough to hold it together."

"It isn't always that easy, mentally," Ligety said. "Because you look pretty stupid if you mess it up. If you blow out by taking too much risk, you look stupid. If you go too easy and blow your lead, you look even more stupid. So it's not such an easy position to be in."

Ligety skied cautiously during his second run, making sure he didn't make mistakes in the riskiest portions of the course. Even so, spectators here feared he was going to crash in one section. But that's just Ligety's natural style. He is able to bend so low in a turn that his body is almost perpendicular to the snow while his ski edges are at nearly 90-degree angles.

"He's able to just risk it and make turns that the rest of us are saying, 'Wow, I really wish I could do that,'" Jitloff said. "Sometimes it looks normal and clean and you say, 'That wasn't anything special.' But he makes no errors, and he comes down with the big margin, and everyone's jaws are on the floor and are like, 'How did he do that?'"

Ligety said he felt only relief crossing that line, but his fellow skiers felt mostly admiration.

"It reminds me of when [tennis player Roger] Federer was so dominant for about four years there and everyone was like, 'What do you do? How do you beat him?'" Jitloff said. "I don't know."

Miller might be gone from the Olympics, but he's left them in good hands. After all, Ligety has two gold medals, and he still can win more. He is only 29 and plans to be on the podium in Korea in four years as well, even if Miller will be watching on TV instead from the course.

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