Ted Ligety has joined some of skiings legends. And in doing so, the American catapulted himself into the sports biggest spotlight heading into next years Sochi Olympics.
By winning Fridays giant slalom by a massive margin, Ligety became the first man in 45 years to win three gold medals at a World Championships since French great Jean-Claude Killy took home four golds in 1968.
I still dont think I recognize what Ive done this week, Ligety said. Its just been so phenomenal to win three gold medals, especially in two events that I hadnt won in before.
Ligety opened the championships last week by winning the super-G, then followed that up with gold in the super-combined Monday both events he never had won on the World Cup circuit.
That kind of added some pressure and expectations for (Friday) because the giant slalom is really what I came here for and really wanted, said Ligety, who won four of the five World Cup GS races this season. Its just been super, super surreal.
Killys feat came on home snow in Grenoble in a year when the Winter Olympics doubled as the World Championships. He swept gold in all three Olympic events giant slalom, slalom and downhill and was awarded another worlds gold for combined.
The only other three men to accomplish the feat were Emile Allais, the first great French skier, who won three events at the 1937 worlds in Chamonix, France; Norwegian pioneer Stein Eriksen, who took home three golds from the 1954 worlds in Are, Sweden; and Toni Sailer, one of the first great Austrian skiers who won four golds at the 1956 Olympics in Cortina dAmpezzo, Italy, which also doubled as worlds, and three at the 1958 worlds in Bad Gastein, Austria.
To be among those names, to have three gold medals at World Championships, is a really cool feeling, he said. Its not something I set out to accomplish.
Ligety also probably didnt intend to put himself in position as the next big thing heading into Sochi. But with Lindsey Vonn suffering a season-ending crash in her opening event here and Bode Miller taking this season off to recover from left knee surgery, Ligety almost will surely be thrust into the role that Miller had for the 2006 Torino Games and that Vonn dealt with for the 2010 Vancouver Games.
I guess well see, Ligety said. I dont know what its going to be like. I know they both had a lot of external pressures and a lot of different things they (had) to go through for being the favorite, and well see how that goes.
This definitely sets the bar high, he said. I dont know if this is repeatable. Hopefully I can just maintain the same level of skiing and give myself good chances there.
Fridays worlds was a pretty decent dress rehearsal.
Before 35,000 fans, Ligety established a 1.31-second lead in the opening run and overcame a slight bobble in the second leg to finish 0.81 ahead of Austrian rival Marcel Hirscher the only man to beat Ligety in a GS this season and 1.75 in front of Manfred Moelgg, who finally gave Italys talented GS squad its first medal since Alberto Tomba in 1996.
While the numbers were impressive, what his fellow skiers marveled at was Ligetys form how he leaned down at near-impossible angles for each turn, dragging his hips and hands across the snow as the edges of his skis carved, then stayed on a perfect line.
Italian GS veteran Davide Simoncelli, who finished sixth, simply couldnt match Ligetys flexibility.
He leans down much further than we do, and therefore the ski goes much faster because it goes tighter around the turn, Simoncelli said. Im trying everything I can, but Im not able to imitate him.
Its like asking the guy who finishes second in the 100-meter dash, How do you catch (Usain) Bolt? Simoncelli said.
While most of the 35,000 fans who flooded into this small Alpine village were hoping to see Hirscher win, Ligety also had supporters.
One fan banner at the race read, Ted Ligety: You are the one and only. Another said, Ted Ligety: I love you, with a heart in the place of love. And little girls had Ted painted onto their cheeks.
Hes flying, not skiing. He goes from one victory to another, Austrian Alpine director Hans Pum said. He got his first super-G win in the first race, and then he just carried on. Hes doing what he wants to.
Ligetys victories, plus a super-G bronze from Julia Mancuso, put the U.S. Ski Team atop the medals table after nine of 11 events. Only the two slaloms remain, and American teenager Mikaela Shiffrin is among the favorites for todays womens race.
Host Austria has the most medals overall, five, but still is seeking its first individual victory, having won only the team event.
Theres nothing to say. Its life; its sport. Its like Barcelona, Pum said in reference to the Spanish football team. The best team doesnt always win. This is sport; its important for sport.
Hirscher, whose every move at these championships has been documented in this ski-crazy nation, also paid tribute to Ligety.
Hes definitely the world champion, the triple champion, Hirscher said. I take my hat off to you.
But Ligety wasnt celebrating yet. He closes the championships with Sundays slalom, an event he hasnt reached the podium in for five years.
I dont think Im necessarily a medal challenger, but Ive been fast in the slalom in the past, and maybe this wave of confidence can carry me through to a medal, Ligety said. I know thats definitely a reach, but Ill wait for the party until after Sunday.