Ted Ligety was a little known 21-year-old baby of the U.S. men’s ski team when he stunned the world by snatching a gold from superstar teammate Bode Miller in the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Now, after a year spent dominating the World Cup circuit, Ligety is being hailed as the new top dog of U.S. skiing.
Here’s what you need to know about this master of Giant Slalom:
1. He Didn’t Make His Local Youth Ski Team
A Team USA profile of Ligety, published after he was named 2013 Olympic SportsMan of The Year, details his struggles as an adolescent skier.
Ligety grew up in Park City, Utah, one the top skiing destinations in the country. He first took to the slopes when he was only 2 years old. Though a precocious and dedicated skier, Ligety was a bit of a late bloomer, and failed to earn a coveted spot on the U.S. Ski Team’s development squad. His father explained that disappointment only motivated young Ted:
Ted was driven at getting better, so he had to work much harder than the kids that made it. All of a sudden, those kids were getting greater training and great equipment and opportunities that he didn’t have, and some of those kids were his buddies. I think that really developed a work ethic in Ted that was outstanding.
Ligety’s father wasn’t too modest to claim some credit for that work ethic, suggesting that his son learned his productive habits from watching his parents:
There are a lot of people in Park City that have a lot of money, but we aren’t one of them and weren’t one of them when Ted was growing up. I think Ted saw us go to work early and coming home late and working weekends, and I think he just saw that as just what you do. Work is something you do.
Ligety seconded this sentiment, telling a reporter at this past World Cup in Soelden, Austria:
I think I’m innately super competitive. Because I didn’t have the best physical attributes, I had to be a hard worker. And not having that success made me become a harder worker than I would have been if I was good when I was 13 years old or something. I think that’s something that, as I grew older, worked to my advantage.
2. He’s a Huge Favorite to Take Gold in Giant Slalom
Ligety’s specialty is the Giant Slalom, and in 2013 he took his game to the Boss level. He won six of the eight races he competed in, one by 2.75 seconds, which the Chicago Tribune likens to “lapping the field in a 1-mile run.”
Former U.S. ski team racer Steve Porino told the Tribune that “of all the skiers in all the disciplines, he [Ligety] stands out the most in his discipline.” Porino further described Giant Slalom as the purest of all alpine events:
You can’t just be a great athlete, you can’t just be big and strong, you can’t just be ridiculously quick. You really have to have it all. It’s the art of skiing, and the hardest to harness.
Ligety won three gold medals at the World Championships in Schladming, Austria, becoming the first skier since Jean-Claude Killy in 1968 to win three gold medals at the event.
3. He Won His First Gold Medal While Sick With the Flu
When Ligety took home that surprise gold in 2006, he did so while shivering and snot-faced, suffering from a nasty flu. However, Ligety doesn’t think that fact makes his victory more impressive, since illness can sometimes be an asset, telling the Tribune:
A lot of racers have some of their best days when they’re sick. You don’t waste energy on all the other frivolous stuff going on around you. You have to take so much mental energy to get yourself going, you take more risks and push yourself harder because you know that’s the only chance you have.
At one race last year, Legity required a hospital visit and IV to make it up the slope. He came in fourth.
4. He & Bode Miller Have a Playful Rivalry
While Ligety was shredding the World Cup circuit this past year, Bode Miller was watching from the sidelines, allowing himself to recover from knee surgery in advance of the Sochi games.
When asked by the Tribune whether this year’s team was “his” or Bode’s, Ligety replied:
Any time Bode’s around, he’s the star. He’s done a lot more than I have in the sport. I’m still a long way off from his career achievements. He is an extremely interesting story and an extremely interesting personality. I’m perfectly fine with that.
Miller is now the graybeard of U.S. Men’s alpine, five years Ligety’s senior at 34. He admires Legity in the manner of an older brother, careful to remind the little guy of his place:
I think he really loves that he’s a much better GS skier than I am right now. At the same time, I think he feels the pressure still because he sees the way I ski and he knows…
5. To Take Gold He’ll Need Skills, But Also Luck
While Ligety is considered the prohibitive favorite for Giant Slalom, nothing is ever certain in competitive skiing, where weather, snow-conditions, and course set-up can exert considerable influence on outcomes. Olympic favorites have flopped plenty of times before.
That 2006 win that put Ligety on the map required it’s own share of good fortune. Miller had won the downhill portion of the combined and needed to do little more than stay upright through two slalom runs to clinch gold. But that year’s odds-on favorite managed to miss a gate and get himself disqualified.
Four years ago, Ligety suffered a similar fate, finishing ninth in an Olympic GS race he was expected to win.
After a year of dominance, Ligety finds himself staring down a mountain of expectations. Luckily, he’s pretty good at riding those things down.