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It’s not news when alpine skier Ted Ligety takes first place; it’s news when he doesn’t.
Ligety began skiing at age 2, and now, at 29, he’s one of the most experienced, skilled skiers in the world, with the resume to match: He was the 2006 gold medalist in the combined downhill event (the fourth American man to win) at the Olympic Games in Torino, and he’s taken home four World Cup championships in the giant slalom event.
At the 2013 World Championships, Ligety became the fifth man in history to have won more than three gold medals at one World Championships—and the first in 45 years to do so.
“Think of all the great skiers—Hermann Maier, Kjetil Andre Aamodt, Bode Miller—who could not do it in the last 45 years,” U.S. Ski Team coach Sasha Rearick told the New York Times. “But Ted found a way to get past them anyway.”
He’s also won six National Championships—putting him just three wins behind the current record of nine held by Bode Miller.
So the fact that for the first time in five years, Ligety didn’t make the finals of a World Cup giant slalom race this winter in Val d’lsere, France, is raising some eyebrows. After making a rare technical mistake, Ligety literally veered off course—something he’s never done before—and failed to complete the event and qualify for the final round of the competition. The last time Ligety experienced such a disappointing finish was at the 2009 World Cup Championships.
Still, Ligety’s not worried about Sochi. The two-time Olympian thrives on competition, he says, and he’s not slowing down or letting up on his training before heading to Russia.
“I’m naturally psyched by the pressure of a big event—I am super competitive, so it’s easy for me to get up and want to compete,” Ligety told SHAPE.
Even his competitors wonder if a race really counts when Ligety’s not in it. “I’m happy to see that Ted is human and beatable,” Marcel Hirscher, giant slalom winner, told ESPN after the World Cup championship in December.
No doubt about it—Ligety is good at what he does. But that wasn’t always the case. “When I was 16, I would watch all my friends starting to break through in skiing,” he says in a video interview with Procter & Gamble for their annual Thank You, Mom campaign. “I was pretty close to them technique-wise, but I’d lose races by a lot, and I kept coming in 25th or 26th place, you know, way, way back.”
Ligety credits his parents for helping him fight his way to the top. “My parents have played a huge role in my success—they allowed me to race and to take ownership of the sport, and I learned a lot from their hard work,” he says.
Part of his skiing success might also stem from his innate thrill-seeking. The self-described adrenaline junkie admits: “I like to try to scare myself.”
Because alpine skiers compete on a world cup circuit from October to March, Ligety will be racing every weekend until the Olympics. “I think it’s a good way to sharpen your skills and get mentally focused,” he says. “If you come in to the Olympics having not raced in awhile, it’s hard to be ready to compete at your highest level.” —Alanna Nuñez