- Alpine Skiing
Ted Ligety couldn't deliver a sixth Sochi medal, but five is fine for Team USA
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — There were a couple hours Saturday evening when it seemed possible the U.S. Alpine ski team — already with a performance here at the Sochi 2014 Olympics that history will judge as fine, indeed— might, just might, sneak away with what would amount to a bonus medal.
After Run 1 of the men’s slalom, Ted Ligety, winner three days ago of the giant slalom, had put himself in position for a medal. He was only 11-hundredths back of third.
- Full event replay – Slalom Run 1
- Full event replay – Slalom Run 2
- Austria’s Mario Matt wins gold in men’s slalom
- Marcel Hirscher battles tough course to grab slalom silver
- Henrik Kristoffersen becomes youngest Olympic Alpine medalist
- Analysis: How Austria was able to go 1-2 in men’s slalom
- Ted Ligety unable to overcome mistakes, skis out in 2nd run
- David Chodousnky skis out in the first run of slalom
- Nolan Kasper of the U.S. finishes 13th in slalom
- Felix Neureuther of Germany skis out in 2nd run
- Hubertus von Hohenlohe all smiles after DNF in slalom
The U.S. Alpine team went into Saturday night with five medals, tied for its second-best performance ever at a Winter Games, with the Sarajevo 1984 team. Only the Vancouver 2010 team, which racked up eight, had done better.
Tantalizingly, six suddenly seemed within reach. Because he already had the GS gold, Ligety was skiing the slalom with no expectation, no pressure. The buzz started building — remember those two killer slalom runs Ligety put down to win his first Olympic gold, the combined, in Torino in 2006?
And then came the buzzkill.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Sochi Olympics: Men's Slalom Run 2
Ante Kostelic, the Croatian coach who earlier in these Games had fixed the slalom set for the super-combined, put together the course for Run 2. His son, Ivica, the super-combi silver medalist, had reminded one and all that dad’s courses were designed to ensure there would be no “accidental winners.”
Combined with changing snow conditions, it was carnage.
Of the Top 30 in Run 2, 10 did not finish and two were disqualified for missing or straddling a gate. In a crazy 1-2-3-4 sequence, four of the finest skiers in the world went out, one after another: France’s Alexis Pinturault; Germany’s Felix Neureuther, third in the World Cup slalom season standings; Ligety; and France’s Jean-Baptiste Grange.
Three guys later, Andre Myhrer of Sweden went out; the 2010 bronze medalist, he had been second-fastest in Run 1.
In all, for Run 2, there were 34 finishers, 29 DNFs and three DQs. The attrition rate: 48.4 percent.
Austria’s Mario Matt stayed upright long enough and fast enough to win gold. He became the oldest man to win an Olympic gold medal in alpine skiing — just a few months older than Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who was also 34 when he won the 2006 super-G.
Marcel Hirscher, the Austrian expected to win — he leads the World Cup slalom season standings — took silver.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Sochi Olympics: Men's Slalom Run 1
Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, second in the season standings, took bronze — and in one of those Olympic quirks, he became the youngest man to win an Olympic medal in Alpine skiing. On Saturday, he was 19 years and 235 days old.
Kristoffersen — mired in 15th after the first run — said that after he took a look at the course set for Run 2, he thought he “might have a chance,” adding, “Thank you, Ante Kostelic, for that one.”
Ligety said it was “not that big of a bummer” that he did not win a medal. After all, he said, he was — unlike the GS — not a favorite in the slalom.
At the same time, he said, “The snow is really bad. And an Ante set — you know, a really difficult, typical Ante course set, which is borderline, you know, unsportsmanlike — to set that kind of course on these kind of hills, that’s how it goes. Everybody had to ski it. I mean, not all the best guys had a chance to make it down. Unfortunately it is what it is.”
It is what it is, too, for the U.S. men’s program in the slalom: no Olympic medals since Sarajevo in 1984, when Phil and Steve Mahre took gold and sliver.
It is curious, even befuddling, why this string should be going on for 30 years, and now ensured to be at least 34, until at least Pyeongchang 2018, because virtually every young American racer comes up skiing slalom. You don’t just strap on skis and start pounding down the mountain at 90 miles per hour.
Embedded video_content_type: Ted Ligety 1-on-1
“These things happen,” Bill Marolt, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn., said when asked why the American men are on this 30-year shutout.
“I don’t think it’s necessary a lack of talent, a lack of coaching. Talent doesn’t always come consistently on a linear basis. It comes in waves. We have been on a roll here where we have had great talent on the speed side,” which is ski talk for downhill and super-G.
“That can change and we will evolve over time.”
If six medals was not to be, the sense percolating throughout the U.S. Alpine program was that five was a number everyone could live with, and contentedly.
Only Austria won more alpine medals in Sochi than the Americans. Saturday’s two in the slalom lifted the Austrians to nine. Four years ago, the Austrian team won but four; the Austrian men, none.
For the Americans, the starting place in any assessment is that Ligety and Mikaela Shiffrin, expected to win, him in the giant slalom, her Friday in the slalom, did.
Is there anything in sports more difficult? To be the favorite and, under such pressure, produce?
Embedded video_content_type: Mikaela Shiffrin: 'It was an amazing feeling'
As just one of a zillion examples, consider Hirscher.
“The performance Ted put on the snow that day was incredible,” Patrick Riml, the U.S. Ski Team’s alpine director, said.
“He was the favorite, he expected a lot from himself, everybody else expected him to win. To dominate that race like he did — it was impressive.”
Julia Mancuso came through with another Olympic medal, her fourth — most-ever for a female American skier. So did Bode Miller, a record sixth. And, echoes of Vancouver, so did Andrew Weibrecht in the super-G — in a race that already deserves to be labeled “victory or hospital” for his all-or-nothing approach to the podium from the No. 29 hole.
At the 2013 World Championships, the U.S. team won five medals — three from Ligety alone.
Looking to the future:
Embedded video_content_type: Slope sounds: What Julia Mancuso hears
All of this happened here without the U.S. skier who in Vancouver won two medals, one gold; who has 59 World Cup wins; who has four World Cup season overall titles; who is, especially in the speed events, simply put, a force.
Those five medals the U.S. team won at the 2013 worlds? Those five came without Lindsey Vonn, as well.
Vonn is expected back; next year’s World Championships are in Vail, Colo., where she’s based.
But to have won five medals at the 2014 Olympic Games without Vonn?
“Lindsey from 2005 or 2006 was winning medals at the big events. So I’m very pleased with the five medals,” Riml said.
Echoed Marolt, “As you look at our performance over these Olympics, and I have thought a lot about this the last few days, I am pleased. It has been really good.”