Ted Ligety is all about technique. He's precise. Controlled. Clean. He's also a complete risk-taker. Each of those so-called precise, controlled, clean turns? They're perpetually a razor's-edge (or a millisecond) from disaster.
In that sense, Ligety isn't all that different from the guy media outlets love contrasting him with, Bode Miller. Ligety turns speed into a science, the story goes, while Miller? Well, he's just the most supremely athletic hot mess ever to hit skis.
These narratives play well into the kind of coverage journalists need to make these so-far-less-than-breathless Olympics more exciting for an American audience, especially with a sport as seemingly impenetrable as ski racing. Make the two men polar opposites, and you've got more than a few races. You've got a Sochi showdown!
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Yes, the two guys are super-competitive with one another (and with everyone else). But here's what that storyline misses about the two racers: Both have managed to go rogue in a regimented sport, creating unique, personal styles that ski racers have either raised eyebrows at… or rushed to imitate.
Miller never skied like the other guys. Where other racers would look like pendulums coming down the hill, upper bodies quiet, legs swinging nice arcs around each gate, he was like a slingshot with limbs. He sat in the backseat. He skidded his skis. He flailed around. "He's so ugly," racer friends of mine would say, admiringly.
The only way he could keep it all together, it seemed, was with a ridiculous amount of full-body muscular strength. And he couldn't always make it work: He often crashed, or made big mistakes. But when he managed to hold on, he won big. In 2005, he became the first U.S. racer to take the overall World Cup title in 22 years, even though he got a DNF (did not finish, either by crashing or missing a gate) for a third of his races. He'd take the title again in 2008.
Then there's Ligety. He's practically a dancer on the racecourse. Even on the most unpredictable courses, his run seems perfectly rhythmic, each turn beautiful and round. In a word, his style seems effortless.
What's easy to miss is that while Ligety's style looks pretty, it is, arguably, as far from classic as Miller's. And in the same way that Miller pioneered a new way to ski on the shaped skis that revolutionized racing in the mid-1990s, Ligety might be leading the way on what to do now that those skis are getting longer again. (More on this in a moment).
For one thing, there's the size of Ligety's turns: They're bigger and rounder than everyone else's. That doesn't seem to make a lot of sense—the fastest line to the bottom is the shortest, right? But it means Ligety's turns are flawlessly fluid, letting him link one turn to the next more smoothly, rather than cutting closer to the gates and then having to jerk himself into the next turn.
Then there's the way Ligety leans into each turn. Instead of his shoulders staying parallel to the ground, in that classic "T" formation that keeps an athlete as aggressive and perfectly balanced as possible, Ligety dips into each turn—so much so that his hip, hand, and arm will often graze the ground. Despite his reputation as a super-controlled, precise skier, making that part of your repertoire is kind of Bode-Miller-level crazy. Tipping into a turn makes it much easier to fall over, especially if jostled by a rut or bump. In fact, scratch that: It makes the ability to simply continue standing up at 50 or 60 mph, never mind the vagaries of the terrain, all but impossible. Unless (like Miller!) you have near-superhuman strength.
Turns out, though, the same form that coaches warned their racers against for years and years comes with a perk. It means Ligety's pulling into each turn before he even makes it. And it creates a sharper angle into the snow, a cleaner carve, and less sliding through the turn.
Except, that is, when it doesn't. Watch those "perfect turns" of Ligety's closely: Every once in a while, you'll see something strange, noticeable only when that 50 mph run is bumped down to slow motion. Ligety looks like he's skidding. Not carving. Skidding. The go-to "move" of beginner skiers everywhere.
For years, this was the biggest no-no in skiing. After all, carving an edge cleanly into the snow is faster (and more stable) than skidding a ski. It's physics: When you skid, the base of the ski is hitting the slope with more surface area, causing more friction. And without that sharp angle digging into the snow, it's much easier to lose control of the ski. For that reason, a racer who's suddenly freaked out, or feeling out of control, will often intentionally "shed" speed at a turn. And they'll do so in a way that looks incredibly similar to the kind of skidding that Ligety is doing on every turn.
Here's what's weird. Ligety's skidding? It's deliberate. So much so that the move has a name, a "stivot" (think "steer" and "pivot").
In his case, it works. [Note: We're going to spoil today's results later in this piece, so if you want to be surprised, stop reading until tonight.]
At the giant slalom (GS) in Soelden in October, Ligety pulled out the stivot not once, but several times, starting at the pitch about two-thirds of the way down the course. Yet, because of the precise way he pulled it off—the stivot's success comes from the fact that the skid doesn't so much shed speed as propel the skis back into a carve, in the exact line desired—he stayed in perfect control. He also won, grabbing a combined .79-second margin over two turns. Miller may have been using the stivot as early as 2003, and Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal, winner of the overall World Cup in 2007 and 2009, was another early adapter. But it's still a somewhat strange and misunderstood technique—one that Ligety has not only embraced but, as the announcer (unnecessarily) crows in the video below, mastered. (Look for the stivot at 0:53).
Why does the stivot work? Largely because of the recent changes in ski racing.
In the mid-1990s, shaped skis revolutionized skiing, making it much easier, and faster, to turn. Racecourses changed, too, becoming tighter and turnier. And then the FIS started to pull back on all that shaped-ski mayhem. In the 2006-2007 season, women could ski GS on skis with a minimum length of 180cm, men on 185cm; turn radius (the radius of the smallest turn a ski can make) was minimum 21 meters. The next year, the lengths stayed the same, but turn radii now had to be 23m for women, 27 for men.
But the big change was yet to come: The FIS announced that, for the 2012-2013 season, the minimum lengths for skis would increase for all disciplines but slalom. In GS, they'd go up to 188cm for women, 195 for men—and turn radii would go up to a minimum of 35 meters and 40 meters, respectively. (The backlash would cause FIS to give back some ground—radii were ultimately set at 30/35.)
(As a point of comparison, in my racing days in the early 2000s, I skied GS on 167cms. Granted, I'm 5'3". Even still, when I once got on 173cm, I remember feeling like I couldn't turn them at all. It was like the skis just wanted to keep running downhill without any of my input, and I had to throw myself from one side to another to get them to turn—that's how much difference a 6cm change can make.)
For racers who had trained on the turnier, faster-reacting skis, it would have felt like suddenly strapping on boards. It also required supreme agility, since the turn radii were now longer, often by 10 meters or more, than the actual turns of the course. If you let the skis just run, in other words, you wouldn't make the turn in time. You'd get there late. You'd skid. You'd shed speed. All of which wasn't only ugly, but slow.
Confused by this? So was Ligety. Not to mention incredibly mad. "It seems FIS is going out of their way to ruin the sport," he fumed in a post on his website after the changes were announced. "FIS is imposing new ski regulations that turn back the clock on the evolution of this sport." When Schindler's List was in theaters and the first Bush was president, Ligety points out, skis still had a lower turn radius than they would now. "You would have to go back to the '80s to find 40 meter radius skis," he wrote.
Turned out, though, that by taking big risks and propelling himself into each turn, the style Ligety had been honing was just right for making the high, tight turns the new regulations required. And in a pinch? There was always the option of going for the stivot—something that Ligety himself more or less predicted in the same op-ed. "So long to arcing clean turns and the sport's progression," he wrote. "Today I finally had the chance to try a prototype of the 40m GS skis and quite frankly they suck. I felt like Phil Mahre circa '84. Try as I could, I could not get them to come around without a huge slide and step."
An altered, modern version of the slide-and-step? The stivot. It's as ugly as Miller-style flailing. And it's every bit as effective. In 2013, Ligety won every GS race on the World Cup circuit but two. At the World Championships, he won gold in Super-G, super combined and GS.
And today (spoiler alert!), Ligety took gold in the GS.
Miller, on the other hand, has been equally true to form. He had surgery on his left knee last season, injured his right knee in a race right before the Games, and still went all-out. Although that meant he managed to clinch a bronze in the Super-G over the weekend, in the GS he made a mistake, tweaked (and re-injured) his knee, and came in 20th.
Today's results might show the passing of the baton. This should be the last Olympics for the 36-year-old Miller, while the 29-year-old Ligety has many more seasons ahead of him. It also may mark the transition from one trailblazing race style to another.
But here's what it's not: a sign that a classic style is beating out the creative. Because when it comes to how they ski, both these guys are super-unusual—and, no matter how in control Ligety might appear compared to Miller, they're both more than a little bit crazy.
Freelance journalist Amanda Ruggeri, a former ski racer, writes for publications including the BBC, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. After nearly five years of living (and skiing) in Italy, she now lives in Brooklyn, where she has learned that when it snows, her new neighbors do not share her enthusiasm.