SOCHI, Russia — Ted Ligety’s first Olympic gold medal in 2006 was such a gift it all but fell out of the sky from a gondola. Ligety was 21 in Turin, Italy, when he struck gold in the super combined, only because Bode Miller blew gold by missing a gate in his first slalom run and Austria’s Benny Raich blew gold by hooking a second-run gate within feet of the finish line.
Ligety’s second gold medal, won Wednesday at Rosa Khutor on pristine snow in postcard conditions, lifted the weight of his world.
It had gravitas.
The first gold was a dream, but as Ligety said, “it didn’t have the same sort of struggles along the way and the emotions behind it.”
Ligety did one of the hardest things you can do in sports: win at the Olympics when everyone expects you to win.
The best giant slalom racer of his generation would have had to answer questions all the way through customs if he had left Russia without the GS gold in his backpack.
Wednesday’s gold in Russia ratified Ligety’s greatness, justified his travails, silenced his critics and put his winless-Vancouver Olympics in the rear-view mirror.
“I’ve answered Vancouver question for the last four years,” Ligety said. “My best years have been since then, in a lot of ways because of that.”
His comfortable win by 0.48 seconds, with a two-run time of 2 minutes 45:29, completed Ligety’s legacy arc.
Like a ski run, he rode the ragged edge from Vancouver to Russia before crossing the finish line to end all doubt.
Two French racers, Steve Missillier and Alexis Pinturault, won the silver and bronze. But this was Ligety’s coronation.
Tempestuous teammate Miller, who finished in 20th place and 2.53 seconds behind Ligety, could only bow to the champion.
“There is no question who the best GS skier in the world is,” Miller said after what was likely his last Olympic race.
Raich, 35, the great Austrian who won GS gold in 2006, doesn’t even pretend he can compete with Ligety anymore. Raich finished seventh, 1.06 off the pace.
“It is impossible,” he said. “I have tried it all. I’ve given all my power and have still lost. This is the last time for me.”
U.S. skier Tim Jitloff, who finished 15th, almost two seconds behind the winner, said Ligety reminds him of tennis star Roger Federer in his prime.
“Everyone’s like, 'What do you do? How do you beat him?’ ” Jitloff said.
There is a thin line, of course, between explanation and exclamation. Had Ligety gone down on his hip in the second run, as it appeared he might, people would be writing different stories.
“Ski racing is probably the least guaranteed sport out there,” Ligety reminded.
Because Ligety did what he was supposed to do, he can be exalted as the first American male to win two Olympic Alpine gold medals.
Everyone knew what has been at stake since Ligety finished ninth in GS at the Vancouver Olympics.
“At a certain point I’m, 'Let’s do this already, let’s just get this thing over,' ” Ligety said of Sochi. ”So we can stop talking about the pressure and everything with it.”
The unfinished business followed Ligety into Sochi after he failed to medal in the super combined and super G.
Holding a big lead in ski racing isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Ligety dominated the first run with a crisp, clean run and took a 0.93 second lead into halftime.
In GS, the top 30 order after the first run is reversed for the second run. Ligety would ski last among the leaders and know exactly where he stood before he left the start gate.
Ondrej Bank of the Czech Republic, the only racer within a second of Ligety's morning time, went just before Ligety but posted only the 15th fastest second run.
That meant Ligety left the gate knowing he had a 1.50 cushion over France’s Missillier, who bolted from 10th to first by posting the fastest second run.
Ligety’s gold was in the bag … right?
“Having a big buffer over other guys going into second run isn’t always that easy mentally, actually,” Ligety said. “You look pretty stupid if you mess it up, if you blow out taking too much risk. You look stupid if you go too easy and blow your lead. It’s not such an easy position.”
Ligety definitely took fewer chances on his second run but said, “There is no such thing as being completely in control in ski racing.”
It looked like Ligety might have lost it at one point when he nearly went down on his hip around a gate.
While Ligety later said he never felt he was going to lose it, you might have had a hard time convincing his parents.
“Ski racing is still two runs,” Bill Ligety said. “It doesn’t matter how far ahead you are in the first run. There’s a find line between almost falling the whole way down or behind too conservative.”
Ted held the line. He gave away more than a second of his lead but still had 0.48 to spare.
Ligety knew he won when the scoreboard flashed “green” after his time.
Green, for Ligety, meant gold.
Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times