Ted TalkTed Ligety’s rise to skiing prominence began with hard work and training. But his consistency at the top comes with constant innovation. Meet the sport’s chief craftsman.
Ted Ligety walks into the base lodge in Vail, Colorado, and instantly gets the boy band treatment. Kids in skintight, spiderwebbed speedsuits swarm him and begin begging for autographs. “Of course,” says Ligety, as he scribbles his name on several ski helmets. A young girl walks over and asks him if he’ll pose for a photo with her. Ligety obliges and smiles widely as she snaps a selfie.
“Will you sign this for my daughter?” asks one father. “She’s too shy to ask you herself.”
In Europe, these impromptu autograph sessions are commonplace. Ski racing is one of the continent’s top sports and Ligety, 30 years old and a dominant force on the World Cup tour, is one of the sport’s biggest stars. After winning gold at the Sochi Olympics, the Park City, Utah, native is getting used to the attention on home soil, too. But after writing his name 20 or so times he needs a break, so he takes a seat and starts peeling off his ski boots.
Just then, German ski racer Felix Neureuther sidles up alongside Ligety and throws his arm around him. Then he leans in and hugs Mia Pascoe, Ligety’s fiancée. “Let’s see the ring,” he says. Ligety popped the question in October.
“Very nice,” says Neureuther.
“When did you get in?” Ligety asks.
“Yesterday,” says Neureuther. “And I already got drug tested at 6 o’clock this morning.”
“That’s good!” Ligety jokes. “They need to drug test you guys!” Neureuther laughs. “How’s the wrist?” he asks.
That’s the question Ligety has been getting most this week. Just three days ago, Ligety was training gates here in Vail and caught his hand on one of the plastic poles, shattering bones in his left wrist. That night, Ligety had surgery to place four metal pins in the bum joint.
“I can’t grip a pole,” he tells Neureuther. “But I’m still training. I’m just skiing with one pole.”
Ligety has little choice but to suck it up and ski. This is a big year for him. It’s already November, and frankly, he needs the training. In February, right here in Vail, he’ll try to defend the three World Championship gold medals he won two years ago in Austria—and the year’s off to a lousy start. In October, he received a smackdown by his fiercest rival, Austrian Marcel Hirscher, who beat Ligety by a whopping three seconds (eons in ski racing) in the American’s best event, the giant slalom (GS).
Ligety boots up and heads outside, clicks into his skis and slides past the wall of junior paparazzi capturing photos with their smartphones. He hops on the chairlift and makes his way to the top of one of the training courses. In two weeks, Beaver Creek, a ski area just down the road, will host men’s World Cup races, and several national teams are here training.
Ligety sets himself and pushes out of the start gate. As he picks up speed and rounds the fourth turn, his inside hip nearly touches the surface, while his right hand scrapes the snow.
He is famous for such physics-defying turns, and he does them better than anybody. By leaning his body far into the mountain, Ligety is able to make his skis start arcing a turn earlier than anybody else on the World Cup circuit. “He’s actually skiing a rounder line around the gates,” explains Ligety’s coach, Forest Carey. “But he’s clean. He never skids the way a lot of guys do, so he’s traveling at a higher speed than other skiers.”
The turns are the reason he’s won five overall World Cup GS titles and earned the nickname “Mr. GS.” And, even skiing with a busted wrist and a single pole, one thing is clear: Ted Ligety is still the fastest man on the mountain.
He wasn’t always the fastest. At 9 years old, he was cut from the Park City Ski Team. “It didn’t bother me,” he says. “I was just like, OK, I’ll do something else this winter. Then the next winter I made the team.”
Still, Ligety, who was smaller than a lot of his peers and lacked refined skills, spent most of his junior racing career far from the podium. “He got his ass kicked for so long, so he had the hunger and desire to hammer on,” says Mike Day, who coached Ligety as a junior. “When kids are good for so long you often don’t see those meteoric rises. He had a true love for skiing and he had solid fundamentals. He wasn’t a big dude, but he put in his time training and got stronger.”
When he was 19, Ligety shocked his teammates and coaches on the U.S. ski team’s development squad by winning a time trial that qualified him for a World Cup race. By the end of the year, he was skiing into the World Cup tour’s top 30. A year later, in 2005, he made another leap, reaching the podium in Beaver Creek. He scored three more podiums later that season. Just a year later, and still relatively unknown, he won the gold medal in the combined event (one run downhill, two runs of slalom) at the Olympics in Turin, Italy.
Part of that rapid success can be attributed to Ligety’s dogged determination and torturous, leg-burning gym workouts. But his attention to detail when it comes to racing equipment and his reliance on technology is also a big part of the equation.
In 2006, dissatisfied with the helmets and goggles being offered to skiers and wanting to begin building a future for himself beyond ski racing, Ligety began making his own race gear. His Shred Optics now enjoys an annual growth rate of 60 percent, boasts one of the lightest helmets on the market and sponsors some of the World Cup’s biggest stars, including Frenchman Alexis Pinturault.
When he’s not on the hill, Ligety can often be found hammering away on his computer, taking conference calls with the sales team or checking in on production in Italy, Taiwan and Vietnam. “I come up with a lot of the designs for the goggles and helmets,” he says, “then I test them to make sure they work. Sometimes I test goggles years before they come out.”
A few years after starting Shred, he also helped develop Slytech, a company that produces body armor for ski racers. “Right now we’re working on a carbon- injected arm guard,” he says. “If I was wearing any other glove the other day, my hand would be destroyed.”
In addition, Ligety helps his ski and boot sponsor, Head, design all the equipment that he races on. Head has made boot molds based on Ligety’s drawings, and when ski racing’s governing body made a rule changing the dimensions of GS skis, at a moment when Ligety was at his most dominant (prompting him to call the organization a “dictatorship” out to “ruin the sport”), he helped design the ski he would use to continue his winning ways.
At Vail, Ligety was toting around a bag with four pairs of boots in it, testing each to see which pair skied faster. “Even if you’re winning, you’re always trying to find something better,” he says. “In 2011, I was having a great season, but a week before the World Championships, I switched to a new GS ski anyway.” It paid off. Ligety went on to win his first World Championship gold medal.
Ligety also relies on video feedback to hone his technique. The day before he broke his wrist, he had five different GoPro cameras strapped to his body, including one attached to a 2-foot metal rod hanging off the back of his helmet. “He looked like a human science experiment,” said fiancée Mia Pascoe. Maybe so, but Ligety believes that capturing his skiing from different angles helps him see things that then allow him to make subtle tweaks to his movements. “I watch to see how smoothly my skis go through the snow and what the rest of my body is doing to allow that to happen,” he says. “I also watch the other fast guys to see what they’re doing.” And with Hirscher so far leading this season’s GS standings, innovation is crucial.
“I’ve noticed that he’s changed his tactics so that they’re more like mine,” says Ligety of his rival. “He definitely pushes me to be better.”
But how much longer will Hirscher be around to push Ligety? In the Austrian edition of The Red Bulletin in January, Hirscher hinted that he might retire before the next Olympics. “I don’t believe that,” says Ligety. “But that’s certainly not my plan. I’m racing a lot longer.”
Ted Ligety is pissed. His broken wrist kept him out of races in Lake Louise, Alberta, and his return to racing here in Beaver Creek has been mediocre.
In the downhill race two days ago, he was 28th. Yesterday in the super G, he was 11th. And after the first run of GS today, Mr. GS sits fourth, a hundredth of a second behind Hirscher, who’s third.
As he bursts out of the starting gate in run two, it’s clear he’s leaving everything on the hill, even arcing a turn by using his left injured hand as an outrigger. “Are you kidding me?!” exclaims the announcer. “What an incredible athlete!”
Ligety blows through the finish line to the roar of a standing ovation. Hirscher skis next, finishing six tenths of a second behind Ligety. Pinturault can’t catch Ligety either, nor can Benjamin Raich, another Austrian who’d led after the first run. Ligety throws his arms in the air in victory. It’s his fifth straight GS win in Beaver Creek. In just a little over two months, he’ll go for number six in the World Championships.
“But what about the wrist?” an interviewer asks right after Ligety’s win.
“The wrist?” he says. “I didn’t even think about the wrist.”