Two gold medals in a skiing career… it has ben an ever-elusive feat that only one Alpine skier from the United States had ever pulled off before the men’s giant slalom commenced in Sochi. Neither Bode Miller nor Lindsey Vonn has yet to reach that level of achievement, their career opportunities dwindling away as Miller looks forward to retirement and Vonn deals with another rehabilitation. Past American champions like Phil Mahre, Diann Roffe, Bill Johnson, Tommy Moe, and Picabo Street all fell short of the mark as well during their careers. Julia Mancuso, despite all her success in the sport, also only has one gold among her four medals from three different Olympiads.
Only Andrea Mead-Lawrence had managed to pull off two gold medals in the course of her Olympic career. As the 19-year-old Alpine captain at the Oslo Olympics of 1952, Mead-Lawrence won both the giant slalom and slalom. It was just the second Winter Olympics to feature Alpine skiing, and Americans would forever chase that level of success ever since.
For more than half a century since Mead-Lawrence’s double in Oslo, 10 skiers from the U.S. had stepped atop the Olympic podium to be garlanded in gold. And yet it was 10 different skiers that accomplished the feat, none able to claim a second and join Mead-Lawrence in the Pantheon of U.S. Alpine skiing, despite the addition of two more disciplines (the Super G and the combined) creating even more opportunities for talented skiers to win Olympic glory.
None had pulled off the feat, that is, until Ted Ligety blazed down the mountain on the giant slalom course at Krasnaya Polyana on Thursday. As a 21-year-old in his first Olympics back in 2006, Ligety had shocked the skiing world by stealing away gold in the combined at Torino. Four years later, the top-ranked giant slalom skier in the world, Ligety was shut out of the medals at what was supposed to be his opportunity to consolidate position as one of the best skiers in the world.
Entering the Sochi Games, Ligety had become the first male skier since Jean-Claude Killy to win three gold medals at the world championships when he won the combined, Super G, and giant slalom in Schladming, Austria. Ranked third overall in the World Cup standings and poised to win his fourth giant slalom title on the tour, Ligety was 29 and looking like a dangerous contender in his prime.
Then he finished just 12th in the combined, down by more than two full seconds to surprise winner Sandro Villeta of Switzerland. (There’s that surprise story again in the combined at the Olympics.) He followed that up with an even worse performance in the Super G, 1.34 seconds behind Norwegian winner Kjetil Jansrud in 14th place.
His last chance at redemption came in the penultimate event of the Alpine calendar at the Sochi Olympics, in the event he has dominated for the past six seasons. Ligety didn’t disappoint, seizing his opportunity and taking his place alongside Mead-Lawrence in the record books.
On his first of two runs, Ligety made everyone else look like tortoises. Only Czech skier Ondrej Bank would manage to stop the clock less than one second slower than Ligety. In a sport measured in hundredths of a second, one that had already seen two ties for Olympic medals in the past fortnight, Ligety bought himself an amount of breathing room that appeared insurmountable.
The American would take his second run more conservatively, knowing after all was said and done that he had 1.5 seconds to play with to secure gold. He gave away 1.02 seconds to French skier Steve Missillier and still won by a wide margin.
After what had looked like a frustrating Olympiad for Ligety, everything turned in the course of an afternoon on the mountains outside Sochi. From the giddy unexpected highs of Torino to the long slog of depressed expectations, Ligety is back atop the Olympic podium, in the process achieving more than any other American skier of the past two or three generations since Mead-Lawrence’s legendary trip to Norway 52 years ago.