SCHLADMING, Austria — Winning two other World Championship titles in the last week didn't provide Park City's Ted Ligety with any kind of comfort or safety net as the skier prepared to defend his giant slalom title Friday in Schladming, Austria.
In fact, it created the kind of pressure that only the world's most successful athletes can truly understand.
"I would not say it's easier, I would say it was harder," said the 28-year-old, who became the first American to win three gold medals in a single FIS Alpine World Ski Championship when he dominated the GS with a two-run time of 2:28.92.
"I came here to win the GS, and that was my main goal. I've won four of the five World Cups this year. If I didn't win, in my mind and probably in a lot of people's minds, it would have been somewhat a failure. The hill is so technically difficult here, so I was definitely feeling the nerves."
Dealing with nerves is something Ligety does well, according to Jesse Hunt, the program director of the Park City Ski Team, who worked with Ligety when he was with the U.S. Ski Team.
"He's just an amazing competitor," said Hunt. "One thing that stood out for me (as a coach) was his ability to compete. He's a super calm, cool competitor. He showed that when he broke onto the scene in a sense (during the 2006 Olympics) when he won a gold medal in the combined at age 21. At that age, winning something like that is impressive."
Here is some perspective on Ligety's accomplishments in the last 10 days:
- No other skier had won three World Championship titles since 1968, when ski legend Jean-Claude Killy swept four races in the Olympics, which also crowned that season's world champions.
- Ligety's SG and SC wins at Schladming in 2013 have come in disciplines in which he has never won on the World Cup tour. All 15 of his World Cup victories have come in the GS.
- Ligety is the first U.S. skier, of either gender, to win the giant slalom gold medal twice at the World Championships.
- The four men who have won three or more gold medals at one edition are: Toni Sailer (AUT, 4 – 1956 and 3 - 1958), Killy (4, 1968), Emile Allais (FRA, 3 – 1937) and Stein Eriksen (NOR, 3 – 1954).
It's the kind of success he dreamed about as a young racer, but never really saw as a possibility.
"It's been a dream for sure," he said with a slight laugh. "It's been a really cool experience." As for his success making him a favorite in Sochi at the 2014 Olympics, he's not quite ready to concede that.
"I guess we'll see," he said. "This definitely sets the bar high. But I don't know if this is repeatable." The challenge, he said, is that ski racing is so unpredictable and involves so many variables.
"Ski racing is a tough sport," he said. "It's hard to replicate these wins. Lindsey Vonn won a gold medal (in the 2010 Olympics) but she had the ability to win far more. It's so far from guaranteed and so hard to replicate. The hill changes every single guy."
Austria's Marcel Hirscher earned the silver Friday with a combined time of 2:29.73, while Italy's Manfred Moelgg was third with a time of 2:30.67.
He's not sure he can earn a fourth gold, but he plans to give the slalom his best effort.
"I have big goals in the slalom still," he said. "I'll wait for the party (celebrating the three titles) until after Sunday."
Hunt said that while Ligety hasn't performed on the World Cup circuit like a favorite, confidence can make all the difference.
"Anything can happen," Hunt said. "In ski racing momentum is huge, and he certainly has a ton of confidence right now. I wouldn't put it past him."
Regardless, Ligety's victory belongs to the entire Park City ski community, especially aspiring racers.
"It's pretty exciting for all of us," Hunt said. "The fact that he's an alumnus of the program because he's stayed really well-connected to the program, he's someone who has given back a ton, attending events and inspiring kids here. He's really great at connecting and engaging with our membership, so it's really cool for all of us."
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