Alexis Pinturault

U.S. alpine: five is plenty fine

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — There were a couple hours Saturday evening when it seemed possible the U.S. alpine ski team — already with a performance here at the Sochi 2014 Olympics that history will judge as fine, indeed— might, just might, sneak away with what would amount to a bonus medal. After Run 1 of the men’s slalom, Ted Ligety, winner three days ago of the giant slalom, had put himself in position for a medal. He was only 11-hundredths back of third.

The U.S. alpine team went into Saturday night with five medals, tied for its second-best performance ever at a Winter Games, with the Sarajevo 1984 team. Only the Vancouver 2010 team, which racked up eight, had done better.

Ted Ligety, left, and Germany's Felix Neureuther after crashing out in Run 2 of the slalom // photo Getty Images

Tantalizingly, six suddenly seemed within reach. Because he already had the GS gold, Ligety was skiing the slalom with no expectation, no pressure. The buzz started building — remember those two killer slalom runs Ligety put down to win his first Olympic gold, the combined, in Torino in 2006?

And then came the buzzkill.

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Ted Ligety's 'awesome' GS gold

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — A couple years ago, they made a rules change in the giant slalom. Citing the interest of athlete safety, they made the skiers change to longer, straighter skis. Those skis are way harder to turn. Ted Ligety, the American who had ruled the giant slalom, complained bitterly.

And then he figured out a way to ski on those new skis, lower and longer in the turns, that further separated himself from everyone else in the world. He could now win races by astonishing margins.

Ted Ligety in victory after the giant slalom // photo Getty Images

At Wednesday’s men’s super-G at Rosa Khutor, Ted Ligety put on a clinic to win the first American alpine skiing gold of these Olympics. Indeed, he won big. It was one of the great moments of the 2014 Games. Here, for the entire world to bear witness, was sheer excellence — the excellence the sport demands as well as the excellence the man demands of himself.

It was, in a word, awesome.

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Ted Ligety, master of his craft

Sometimes an athlete wins, and he or she is all giddy and doesn't have much to say about beyond, wow, I did it! Which, you know, is fine. There's an eloquence of sorts in sports for breathless excitement. Then there's a soliloquy like the one Ted Ligety delivered after he won the giant slalom Tuesday at the Birds of Prey course in Beaver Creek, Colo., with a breathtaking second run to hold off Austria's Marcel Hirscher, by 69-hundredths of a second, with Norway's Kjetil Jansrud third.

These were the words of an artist, an Olympic gold medalist and three-time World Cup giant slalom champion, a master at his craft describing the essence of sport, speed and soulfulness. Listen in:

"It feels really unique in the sense that it never gets super-steep so you can pretty much arc the whole entire thing. Especially on that bottom pitch down there, it's just the perfect steepness for laying out several times.

"I felt my hip on the ground several times, even up on the top, and that's so cool to have your hip on the snow and not have your hands on the snow and feel like you're still in perfect control and still have that grip and feel that sensation of speed out of the turn. it's -- it's so cool.

"It's why every guy who skis GS skis GS. it's because it's so unique in that sense where you really can feel the force. You can carve full, clean turns and really get the speed out of it and feel super laid-over. There's not [any other] sport where you can be on your hip and have nothing else touching but your feet. So it's really unique in that sense."

Ligety's victory made for yet another early-season highlight for the U.S. Ski Team. In 13 World Cup races, the American team has combined for seven victories and 10 top-three finishes.

The U.S. women race the super-G Wednesday at Beaver Creek. Lindsey Vonn -- who won back to back to back races over the weekend in Lake Louise, Alberta -- has never won a World Cup race in the United States.

Ligety is now 27. He's an accomplished professional. He speaks not just to hear himself to talk but because he has something to say.

For instance, he has actively been campaigning against a rules change that FIS, the international ski federation, has announced that would change the hourglass shape of current skis; the change is due to be implemented next season in what FIS says is an attempt to make the sport safer.

Ligety and other racers say the move was pushed through without their input and say it will set back skiing by years -- that skiers will have to skid into turns instead of arcing into them.

"… A lot less dynamic," he said at a news conference Tuesday, and on this occasion Ligety was being at his diplomatic best.

Ligety, meanwhile, was -- with good reason -- called "Mr. GS" at Tuesday's post-race news event. He leads the current World Cup GS standings and at this early stage in the season stands second in the overall race behind Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal.

Obviously, Ligety is still very much in his time, yet he is keenly aware of younger rivals, among them Hirscher, who is 22, and France's Alexis Pinturault, who led Tuesday's first run and who is just 20. Pinturault would ultimately finish Tuesday in fourth.

Of Pinturault, Ligety said, "I still feel pretty young. And having somebody seven years younger than me coming close to beating me and going to beat me sometime this year for sure -- I mean he's so fast, it's just a mater of time before he starts winning races.

"That's definitely a good motivator for me -- knowing that there's someone who's seven years younger than me who probably has more raw speed than I do. That's definitely something that is going to make me push harder in the future. I'm just hoping he doesn't get that mental ability and that race speed too soon."

Hirscher actually won Sunday's giant slalom in Beaver Creek, with Ligety second. Ligety then went to the tape, watching Hirscher's runs, in which, as Ligety said, Hirscher "skied pretty crazy well at the bottom there" and "crushed me by quite a bit and a lot of other guys," and used it Tuesday against him.

"I'm glad to come down and get some redemption," Ligety said.

Which he did how?

By skiing pretty crazy well himself. He pushed himself right to the limit, particularly in that second run.

Ligety said, "I was definitely on the edge. Obviously bobbles -- everybody makes bobbles. None of them cost me time. but I was definitely pushing as hard as I could. I was definitely a lot more aggressive that run than any of the runs I had taken here so far.

"I felt like I had kind of figured out the snow a little better and was able to just trust what my skis and everything was going to do a little better. I was just pushing super-hard. if I did that run several times, I don't know if I would make it to the finish line with a high percentage."

It worked Tuesday. And as Ligety said, "Any win is a good win."

That sort of brevity, too, can be eloquent.