Ted Ligety won the opening World Cup race of the 2012-13 season Sunday on the famous Rettenbach Glacier in Sölden, Austria, by a crazy 2.75 seconds.
It was, as he put it afterward, a “once-in-a-career margin.”
It was also a demonstration of, as U.S. head coach Sasha Rearick put it, Ligety’s “complete ability and confidence in himself.”
Even on the best days, there is nothing inherently fair about alpine racing. And conditions Sunday were, in a word, godawful. “It was a tough day for everybody,” Ligety said, adding, “I just fought and maybe took more risk than it was worth – than was maybe smart.”
That’s just modesty talking — the guy from Park City, Utah, who posed for photos after the race with his parents.
Ted Ligety with his parents, Cyndi Sharp and Bill Ligety, after winning the 2012-13 season-opening giant slalom // photo courtesy US Ski Team and Mitchell Gunn/Getty ImagesLigety is the 2006 Olympic gold medalist in the combined. He is a three-time World Cup season giant slalom champion.
He won in Sölden last year. Indeed, his most recent finishes there had read like this: 2-3-2-1.
But this was not only a new season. Everyone had to ski on new — different — skis. Rules changes mandated skis that were, to reduce a complex situation to its basics, a little bit longer but narrower skis designed to slow racers down.
Ligety was originally one of the most vocal opponents of the rules change.
Indeed, a blog he wrote last November decrying the change was entitled “Tyranny of FIS,” the acronym a reference to skiing’s international governing body. He remains a vocal proponent of athlete input into rules changes.
FIS officials have said many times they believe the rules changes will make the skiing safer.
By last February, meanwhile, after testing the new skis, Ligety discovered he was actually faster on them than the old ones. He called a blog he wrote then, in a reference to the new skis’ minimum radius, “35 meters of irony.”
Shortly before racing got underway at Sölden, in a video blog posted by American teammate Warner Nickerson, Ligety confirmed that, yes, he was in fact faster on the new skis in most GS conditions.
No one, however, counted on a set of variables like what race day Sunday brought: soft snow, variable light and a blizzard.
The GS consists of two runs. The winner is the guy with the day’s lowest combined time.
Ligety ran his first run in near-darkness. He crossed four-hundredths of a second behind France’s Thomas Fanara.
That, Ligety said afterward, “just fired me up,” adding, “I knew I should have been in the lead.”
He skied his second run in a virtual whiteout, the blizzard raging. He said, “I was just taking a ton of risk,” adding, “It really paid out,” the biggest margin of victory in a World Cup GS in 34 years. Manfred Moelgg of Italy took second; Austria’s Marcel Hirscher, last season’s overall and GS tour champion, third. Fanara came in fourth.
FIS records show that the time difference between the winner and second place in a World Cup GS has only been bigger six times before — and all those in the 1970s. The biggest margin: 4.06 seconds, set by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark in the 1978-79 season.
“I’m psyched,” Ligety said after the second run. “I didn’t want to leave anything out there. I was hammering!”
It’s only one race in a long season.
But it went a long way toward re-establishing Ligety as the best GS skier in the world. Because it’s not just that Ligety won, and by such a commanding margin. It’s that he did it in such absurd conditions, and that he created that margin almost entirely in a single run.
“Ted’s arguments he had on the skis were his own opinions but a lot of people agreed,” Rearick said. “He’s a vocal person and that showed in his arguments against the skis. But once he figured out this is what it is, he put all that energy, all that focus into making sure he was going to be the fastest and that he wasn’t going to lose.”
Hirscher asked rhetorically, “What can I say about the incredible Ted Ligety?
“Right now,” Hirscher — a local hero in Sölden — said in quotes posted on the fisalpine.com website, “he is far away from me … he is in outer space. He skied awesome. He skied every gate perfect.”