- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

SESTRIERE, Italy — Not that long ago, Ted Ligety was everything Bode Miller is not: unknown, unsponsored, unaccomplished.

Now, thanks both to his own clean, aggressive skiing and errors by Miller and other favorites, Ligety is something else Miller is not:

An Olympic champion.

“It’s great to be where I am,” Ligety said, his voice hoarse, “but it’s unexpected, that’s for sure.”

Never before a competitor at a Winter Games, never before a winner of any major race, he produced two spectacular slalom runs to pull out the combined event yesterday, only the fourth time in Olympic history an American man has collected a gold medal in Alpine skiing.

A few hours before, it appeared Miller might win that medal. Fastest in the downhill portion of the three-leg event, he was disqualified after straddling a gate in the first slalom.

In 32nd place following the afternoon downhill, Ligety took a star turn under the floodlights during the evening slalom. He was as consistent as a metronome, rocking smoothly back and forth, smacking away gates with his orange gloves and black shin guards.

“You’ve just got to get in the starting gate and throw down whatever you’ve got,” he said.

When he finished his final run, the day’s fastest at 43.84 seconds, the youngster nicknamed “Ligety Split” raised his hands and took a well-deserved bow. Still, he had to wait to celebrate.

First Ivica Kostelic of Croatia finished a half-second shy. Then World Cup slalom champion Benjamin Raich of Austria went off course about 30 seconds into his run.

That was it. U.S. skiers Steven Nyman and Scott Macartney ran over to tackle Ligety, and the trio of teammates rolled in the snow. Ligety took a victory ride on the others’ shoulders, waving a U.S. flag.

“It’s a great day, especially with Bode skiing out,” Macartney said. “Ted stepped up.”

Ligety, a 21-year-old from Park City, Utah, had never finished better than 10th in a top-level combined race. Yesterday he was best with a total time of 3 minutes, 9.35 seconds. Kostelic won the silver, 0.53 behind, and got a hug from sister Janica, herself a champion Olympic skier. Rainer Schoenfelder of Austria was third, 1.32 back.

Raich, meanwhile, pushed his goggles atop his head and slowly made his way down the hill.

“Bad luck,” he said. “Of course I’m sad, but life must go on.”

It wasn’t the first time Ligety benefited from an error by Raich. Ligety’s first career World Cup podium finish came in December at Beaver Creek, Colo., when Raich skied off course on the second run of a slalom, allowing the American to finish third.

That was Ligety’s breakthrough, and his coaches have been predicting even greater things for him — albeit not this quickly.

“I’m not surprised he’s on the podium,” U.S. men’s coach Phil McNichol said. “I’m a bit surprised he won gold.”

The performance must have been a relief to the team after Miller and Daron Rahlves were afterthoughts in Sunday’s downhill and Lindsey Kildow had a horrifying crash in women’s downhill training. Yesterday Bill Marolt, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association president and chief executive, found himself defending the team’s motto: “Best in the World.”

And yet Miller seemed in great shape for his first Olympic gold — he took two silvers at Salt Lake City — after a glistening downhill and what appeared to be an opening slalom good enough to still lead.

It turned out not to be.

As a replay showed, Miller failed to negotiate a gate two-thirds of the way down the slalom and was bounced from the competition half an hour later. Nothing new there: Since winning a World Cup slalom on this same hill in December 2004, Miller has failed to finish 11 of 14 slaloms.

“I don’t really intend to get that disappointed,” said Miller, who then managed to make a joke: “I mean, at least I don’t have to go all the way down to Torino tomorrow [for the medal ceremony].”

Ligety, of course, gladly will take that 90-minute ride down from the Alps. He was sitting with Miller in the rest area when word came that the man with the Nike deal, the satellite radio show and overall World Cup title was done for the day.

“He was like, ‘Are you serious?’ I was pretty bummed for him,” said Ligety, who becomes the favorite for gold in the slalom Feb. 25.

It was heady stuff for a guy who wasn’t on the elite local ski team as a kid, didn’t crack the U.S. Ski Team lineup until two years ago and joined the World Cup circuit just last season.

When he was 10, Ligety started writing down his skiing goals and didn’t exactly aim low.

“The coaches kept saying, ‘Set smaller goals. You can’t win an Olympics this year,’ ” his mother, Cindy Sharp, said at Beaver Creek.

For a half-dozen years, his parents — Dad’s in real estate, Mom sells pottery and jewelry — pumped what Sharp called “a bloody fortune” into Ted’s career. That’s why, when Ligety still had no agent and no outside sponsor, he raced with a helmet decal reading “Mom and Dad.”

Despite his lack of big-time experience, Ligety is cool and confident, by all accounts. He was wisecracking with a coach right before locking into the starting gate. Maybe that’s why he was able to ski such a close, risky line on an icy hill that was bedeviling others.

“I have no idea how this will change my life,” Ligety said. “I’m pretty satisfied with my life so far, so I hope it doesn’t change too much.”

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