Ted Ligety, the only American to win two Olympic gold medals in alpine skiing, met his 3-year-old son Jax late last month after preschool and quickly learned that Jax had won a medal in an after-school skiing program.
“Jax showed me his medal and I told him, ‘Daddy has some medals too,'” Ligety said in an interview last week.
It took Ligety 30 minutes to find his Olympic prizes at his Utah home, but when he was producing them Jax had a suggestion: The Ligety family’s ski medals belonged together, perhaps framed on a wall.
“It was pretty cute,” said Ligety, who told the story to explain another budget decision: his retirement from the sport.
After seven victories in Olympic and world championship races and 15 years as one of the elite artists in ski racing, 36-year-old Ligety officially announced his decision on Tuesday and said he wanted to spend more time with his growing family.
“My priorities have changed,” Ligety said in an interview last week. In addition to Jax, Ligety and his wife Mia Pascoe have twin sons who were born seven months ago.
“I don’t want to be away from home for five weeks of training or racing,” said Ligety, whose last race will be February 19th at the World Championship in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. “And I don’t have the feeling that I can do everything at the level that I wanted.”
As a magnetic personality on the Alpine World Cup Tour, he was a respected provocateur, who defended the rights of the athletes with his voice and at the same time encouraged the old-style ski area to adopt a younger atmosphere.
In his heyday, Ligety developed revolutionary techniques on the snow that made him almost unbeatable in giant slalom for a few seasons. But Ligety, a four-time Olympic champion, wasn’t a one-trick pony: at the 2013 World Championships, he won the Super-G, the Super Combined and the giant slalom within nine days, which no male skier had done in 45 years.
Along with the now retired Lindsey Vonn, Ligety will be remembered as a trustworthy star who bridged the gap between the Bode era in American ski racing and the ongoing Mikaela Shiffrin era.
Ligety became an overnight sensation – at least among American sports fans – during the Turin 2006 Winter Olympics when he celebrated his first major ski win, a shocking surprise in the combined event. Bode Miller, who was expected to win multiple medals at the 2006 Games, was the pre-race favorite and led the lead midway through the event. The then 21-year-old Ligety took 32nd place.
But in the final stage, Ligety, wearing flashy pink gloves and goggles, zoomed forward by more than half a second to win.
“When I think of the 2006 Olympics I still get goosebumps,” said Ligety. “I’m in shock and awe.”
Two years earlier, Ligety had not been counted among the 300 best skiers in the world. While most racers had corporate sponsor names on the edge of their helmets, Ligety stuck tape on his and wrote, “Mom and Dad.” At home in Utah, his parents, Bill Ligety and Cyndi Sharp, still assumed that her son would soon be in college to become an engineer.
The Olympic triumph turned out to be a harbinger, not an aberration.
Ligety rose quickly in the world rankings and was particularly dominant in the giant slalom. He won the season championship in this discipline five times.
To change the attitude of ski racing, he co-founded the Shred company, which develops helmets, goggles and other snow sports accessories. Ligety viewed existing ski racing brands as “super dorky” and wanted Shred to encourage the sport to regain some of the “cool factor” that he believed snowboarding and freeriding had disrupted traditional skiing.
Fifteen years later, Ligety said that ski races “definitely have a better image now”, adding that he “hoped we had a little to do with the merging of the different snow sports worlds”.
In 2013, when his place in the sport was firmly established, Ligety boldly took a stand against the European-based government agency of his sport after it decided to increase the minimum length of ski racers in giant slalom. In a blistering blog post, Ligety railed against the changes that were made without any input from the skiers.
“I had to push back,” he said last week. “I’ve always thought that regardless of punishment, there is the potential for more reward if it gives athletes a voice on these things.”
The change in ski length guidelines was eventually reversed, but not before Ligety figured out – on another point in the hierarchy eye – how to use the new, longer skis better than anyone. He won next season’s inaugural race on the new skis by almost three seconds, an incredible advantage for a sport where races are often won in hundredths of a second.
At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Ligety was an unaffordable gold medal favorite, and his giant slalom win put him in an exclusive group of American skiers. Only Mikaela Shiffrin (2014 and 2018) and Andrea Mead Lawrence (1952) at the Oslo Games have won two Alpine Olympic races.
In the years that followed, knee and back surgeries impaired Ligety’s ability to get the extensive hours of exercise for which he had become known, and his results reflected those limitations. The last of his 25 World Cup wins came in 2015 and he did not win a medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.
Ligety’s exit comes when there is a new promise for the U.S. men’s alpine team struggling to find replacements for aging stars like Ligety.
At the end of December, 28-year-old Ryan Cochran-Siegle won a Super-G race, the first world championship Victory in this event for an American since Miller’s victory in 2006. In the past 14 months, Cochran-Siegle’s team-mate Tommy Ford, 31, had three World Cup podiums, including a giant slalom win. Although Cochran-Siegle and Ford cut their season short due to injuries in racing accidents, Ligety is optimistic about their future.
“There is definitely a changing of the guard,” he said.
When asked what he expected next, Ligety said he wanted to spend more time on the day-to-day running of his company and continue to be informed about important competition and cultural issues in ski racing.
“I won’t be invisible,” said Ligety with a laugh. “But my main priority will be my family. I will be able to be on the mountain with them. “
This means more time to expand the Ligety family’s medal collection.