Ted Ligety sees Olympics in his future, even after retirement

Park City native’s career as one of the best male skiers in U.S. history is just the first chapter

(Photo courtesy of Eric Schramm) Ted Ligety is pondering his next steps as he retires from competitive skiing, but he's certain the Olympics will be part of whatever he does.

The apples of Ted Ligety’s cheeks glowed almost as pink as his rose-colored gloves and goggles. His smile couldn’t stretch any further across his face. His expression, as then-Team USA communications director Tom Kelly would describe it, was a “deer-in-the-headlights look” of pure shock and exhilaration.

It was 2006 in Turin, Italy, and the 21-year-old Ligety, one of the last picked for the Olympic ski team, had rallied back from 32nd place to win an improbable gold medal in the super combined.

The victory felt absurd at the time, something that could happen only when Olympic pixie dust sprinkles down on an athlete. When viewed with a longer lens, however, it verges on inevitable. During his racing career, Ligety showed an incredible knack for being in the right place at the right time, and then seizing on his opportunity.

That started with a childhood lived in Park City and officially ended last month when Ligety retired from racing as one of the most decorated male skiers in United States history. It’s a career that, even as he steps away to spend more time with his family, Ligety still can’t quite believe is attached to his name.

“I mean, every kid dreams of being the best ever, the best in the world and all that stuff,” he told NBC Sports. “But I also dreamed of being John Stockton.”

But Ligety’s legacy isn’t finalized just because he’s hanging up his racing bib. Ligety built his career on finding the angles and using them to his advantage. He built his reputation on advocating for athletes’ voices. As he embarks on the next chapter of his life, he’ll call on both. It’ll start with changing diapers, but could end with changing how ski racing and other elite athletics — perhaps even the Olympics — are run.

With the International Olympic Committee changing how it selects host cities and sports governing bodies seeking increased athlete input, Ligety’s timing again seems impeccable.

As Tiger Shaw, the president of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, told The Salt Lake Tribune, ”He’s not going anywhere.”

Around the globes

Dar Hendrickson wasn’t prepared for what he found when he opened a cupboard while helping paint the interior of Ligety’s house a few years back. Stashed away next to a pile of clothes and some odds and ends lay a small crystal globe. Ligety had amassed the coveted trophy and five of its doppelgangers by winning six International Ski Federation World Cup series titles in giant slalom or combined between 2008 and ’14.

Ligety, 36, also possesses two Olympic gold medals, the one for the combined in 2006 and one for the GS in 2014. He has five world championships, including a first-of-its-kind sweep of the GS, super-G and combined in Schladming, Austria, in 2013. And, his 25 World Cup victories and 52 podiums — at least one per discipline — have yielded him enough ribbon and precious metal to start his own jewelry business.

But those baubles were never what drove Ligety, said Hendrickson, the development coach for the Park City Ski Team, where Ligety set his racing foundation.

“He has great perseverance and he loved to ski,” Hendrickson said. “And he had a passion for it.”

No place like Park City

Perhaps no place could have sprouted and nurtured that passion better than Park City in the 1990s.

Still a relatively small town, Park City had skiing at its core. Snowboarding was still new and ice skating and other winter pastimes wouldn’t really gain traction until closer to the 2002 Olympics. What’s more, the Park City Ski Team had developed a reputation as one of the premier youth racing programs in the country. And, the Winter Sports School, established in 1994, allowed teenagers to fully focus on racing during the winter while attending classes in the summer.

For Ligety, it was the right place at the right time.

“He grew up at kind of the golden age for someone to become a ski racer in Park City,” his father, Bill Ligety, said.

Ligety was 2 when Bill and his wife, Cyndi Sharp, both Park City real estate agents, put their eldest son on skis. It wasn’t unusual at the time, and it wasn’t in the hopes of raising a future world champion. They loved the sport and simply hoped their kids would, too.

Little Ted did not, at least not right away (perhaps because his slip-on boots didn’t fit quite right). It wasn’t until they enrolled him in a learn-to-ski program at Deer Valley — more for the daycare than for the lessons — that he got hooked.

Famously, Ligety didn’t make the Park City Ski Team the first year he tried out, as a 9-year-old. But he doesn’t remember that as a major setback. It was just one of many times he had to play catch-up to his friends on the slopes. Even at age 16, he noted, he was not even among the top five best skiers for his age on his team, mostly because he was among the smallest.

Ever a competitor and in possession of an engineering mind, though, he began looking for ways to narrow the gap.

“Growing up as the perpetual underdog definitely made me turn over more stones and work harder and gave me more hunger,” Ligety told The Tribune. “So I think that’s definitely what helped me be where I was later on.”

Ligety was the only kid going freeskiing on the mornings when the team had afternoon practice, Hendrickson said. And former Park City Ski Team teammate and close friend John Martz recalled him always fiddling with his technique or ski setup.

“He would get his equipment from the reps and he would start tinkering with it and trying new things,” Martz said. “He was kind of a geek with his equipment and his wax. … He would work out really hard and try new things and not just go with the program. And that kind of stuff, that paid off for him.

“I think he understood what his body was capable of and he was always experimenting with that.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Park City's Ted Ligety competes in the Men's Giant Slalom Run 2 during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. Ligety finished in 15th place with a combined time of 2:21.25.

Forerunner before legend

In addition to being pushed by some of the best junior skiers in the nation on his own ski team, Ligety took inspiration from some of the best in the world. Every Thanksgiving from 1984-2003 they made a pilgrimage to Park City to compete in the America’s Opening Alpine World Cup. Ligety and his teammates would duck under fences to get within arm’s reach of luminaries like Hermann Maier and Alberto Tomba.

The Park City team skiers often served as forerunners — athletes who ski a course to prep it for the contestants. And it didn’t take much creativity to imagine themselves racing against their heroes then or later when they used the same course for training.

“That’s something that doesn’t really exist there anymore at the moment,” Martz said. “And it’s too bad because the training isn’t as good now as it used to be.”

When the 2002 Olympics came to the area, Park City Ski Team coaches chose Ligety to represent the team as a forerunner. It wasn’t because he was their best athlete, Hendrickson said, but because he was among the most hard-working.

For Ligety, it was a watershed moment.

“That was a big eye-opener for me to be able see the best in the world on their pinnacle day competing and see how they went about it and how relatable it was ...,” he said. “Even though at the time I wasn’t anywhere close to being relevant to the U.S. Ski team or world ski racing, it made it seem like a relatively achievable goal after watching how those guys approached a race and that it wasn’t all that much different [from what I was doing].”

“And to be able to see the atmosphere was awesome. People always ask me, ‘What was your favorite Olympics?’ And I always say ‘Salt Lake City’ even though I didn’t compete there.”

Upon graduation from the fairly new Winter Sports School in Park City, Ligety asked his parents to let him pursue his dream of becoming an elite ski racer. They gave him one year and held him to it by requiring he apply for college and request deferred entrance.

“I think we were maybe more discouraging than encouraging,” his mother said. “We were trying to be realistic.”

But they needn’t have worried. He made the national development team that year. A year later, at age 19, Ligety was standing atop the Payday run at Park City Mountain Resort, just as he’d seen so many of his idols do, preparing to make his first World Cup start. Unlike them, however, he had MOM + DAD taped to the front of his helmet where a sponsor normally would have been, and his buddies were waiting for him at the bottom with a sign that read: “Go Meathead Ted!”

Finding his edge

This not being a total fairly tale, Ligety didn’t win that event. USA teammate Bode Miller did. Ligety finished 60th.

Still, the seal had been broken. Ligety had tasted the elite ski racer life and he wanted more.

His unexpected gold at the 2006 Olympics became a launching pad for his confidence and his career. His next time in the starting gate, he scored his first World Cup victory. That summer, he co-founded Shred Optics, a company that specialized in flashy and effective goggles like the ones he wore in the Olympics. And within two years he’d won his first of those small crystal World Cup globes.

Ligety humbly credits much of his success to his timing within the sport. He grew up skiing on the shaped carving skis that blew up the ski racing scene when Miller smoked the field on them at the 1996 junior national championships. That meant Ligety and his peers didn’t have to throw out 15 years of experience on the traditional long skis like many older racers.

Hendrickson acknowledged Ligety in many ways is the product of his environment. Still, he said, Ligety would have always found an edge.

“To say Ted couldn’t have done it in a different time would not be fair to Ted,” he said. “He had advantages and he made the most of all those advantages.”

Just as he had done to keep up with his Park City teammates, Ligety kept innovating. He spent as much time on a course as possible. And when he wasn’t locked into his skis, he was sitting in front of a TV or computer, watching himself and others race to try to pick up some minutiae that could give him an advantage.

Before long, he was so dominant he was known as “Mr. GS.”

“What he did in the sport pushed all of us,” said Austria���s Marcel Hirscher, one of Ligety’s fiercest competitors and winner of eight straight World Cup titles. “When he won his first GS [World Cup] title, I felt like that was my best year in skiing — and he beat me.”

KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA - JANUARY 19: Ted Ligety, of Park City, celebrates with an American flag after winning the Men's Giant Slalom at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center during the 2014 Sochi Olympics Wednesday February 19, 2014. LIgety won the gold medal with a cumulative time of 2:45.29. (Photo by Chris Detrick/The Salt Lake Tribune)

Everything Ligety did, he did with passion and strategy.

In 2011, after the FIS proposed rule changes that affected the shape of skis as well as the display of sponsorship logos, Ligety joined other athletes in protesting at an annual FIS forum. Shortly after, he took a scorched-earth approach to the rule change in a blog post titled “Tyranny of the FIS.”

Concurrently, however, Ligety was analyzing how to make the changes work for him. He won his first race under the new rules. Shortly after, he made the three-medal sweep at the 2013 world championships in Austria. It marked the first time in 45 years that a skier, male or female, had won three gold medals in one Olympics or world championship.

“I knew if I was going to take that next step and throw down the gauntlet and rag on those rules, I was going to have to step up and take my skiing to a higher level,” Ligety said. He added, “It was instrumental in my career to take that stand, I guess, but also to push myself to do what I did afterward.”

Ligety remained at the top for nearly a decade. But the one thing he couldn’t innovate was a way to make up for the shortcomings of his battered body. Knee and back injuries began to plague him.

His final World Cup win came in 2015 and he last landed on the podium in 2018. Even his scheduled final hurrah at the world championships last month had to be cut short when intense sciatic pain forced him to withdraw.

Not the end

The emotions of stepping away from racing got to Ligety at a news conference shortly after he announced his retirement last month. While talking about the friends and the connections he’s made since his first races, especially those in Park City, his eyes reddened and his voice cracked.

Ligety officially is leaving racing to spend more time with his family, which includes his wife, Mia, their 3-year-old son, Jax, and twin 8-month-old sons, Alec and Will.

But stepping away from racing isn’t the same as stepping away from the sport. He believes ski racing can’t be stagnant if it wants to continue to be relevant, and he hopes he can influence that as much from behind the starting gate as in front of it.

“Probably the reason I stayed in ski racing as long as I did is there’s no perfection. There’s always a progress to it and a way to get better,” Ligety told The Tribune. “... I was always engaged in that constant evolution of the sport. That made it interesting to me.”

Again, the environment is ripe for Ligety to excel.

Organizations are soliciting athletes’ voices on an ever-growing scale — as an example, athletes now make up a third of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s board of directors after being nearly shut out a decade ago — and opportunities abound. He might even be able to find one just down I-80.

Utah is preparing to bid on another Winter Games, perhaps as soon as 2030. And Ligety wouldn’t mind playing a role in it, perhaps one closer to the spotlight. He’s ready to help some other Utah kid find his inspiration.

“I’d love to be involved in the effort to get it back there. It’s such an important event as a kid to have that in your backyard,” he said. “... To see it and have my kids experience an Olympics in their hometown would be pretty amazing.”

He’s in the right place. He just has to wait for the right time.

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