Ted Ligety, the best American hope for ski-racing gold, dribbles the ball up the lane, plants his feet inside the paint, and launches a jumper so wide off the backboard, it hits the gym wall. "Come on, Ted!" he screams at himself.
In a tense game of three-on-three – skiers versus coaches – in a gym near California's Mammoth Mountain, Ligety is the last guy you'd pick out as the superstar. With his shaggy blond hair and bowlegged walk, he looks more like a pissed-off lift operator than a potential Olympics legend. But during last year's World Cup circuit, Ligety, 29, emerged as the greatest up-and-coming American skier in a generation, a serious threat for multiple medals and a strong contender for the title that pro ski racers respect most: overall World Cup champion.
Little of his greatness is evident on the basketball court when Ligety's coach jukes past him to sink a three-pointer, or when Ligety coughs up the ball on the next possession. "Damn it, set a pick!" Ligety yells at a junior teammate. Then Ligety takes over, grabbing an aggressive rebound, and scores two hard-won hoops to win the game. "Ted hates to lose, like all great athletes," says Trevor Olch, a childhood friend of Ligety's from the Park City Ski Team, in Utah.
Alpine skiing tests four main disciplines, from the slow-and-technical slalom on up to the stupidly fast downhill. Ligety does them all, but he has long dominated giant slalom, an event in the middle that favors Ligety's unique combination of extreme speed and razorlike precision, relentlessly carving on the sharp edge of his skis. When it works – when he maintains control and doesn't go tumbling out of bounds, risking career-ending injury or worse – he achieves what is arguably the purest, most elegant expression of ski-racing technique in the world today. "He's just incredibly interesting to watch," says John Martz, another childhood teammate of Ligety's and a former NCAA All-American ski racer. "Nobody looks like him going around the gates. He's just so much smoother and more elegant and powerful."
But something changed in Ligety's skiing last year, an unexpected quantum leap forward that allowed him to win seven out of nine World Cup giant slalom races for what U.S. ski team coach Forest Carey calls "the most dominant GS season of the modern era." Robby Kelley, the 2012 U.S. national GS champion, describes one of Ligety's races in particular – in Alta Badia, Italy – as "the best single GS run I've ever seen," with Ligety beating Marcel Hirscher, the number one–ranked alpine skier on Earth, by a jaw-dropping 2.04 seconds. "A true ass-whuppin' " is how Carey puts it, in an event typically decided by hundredths of a second. Even more astounding was Ligety's performance at the 2013 World Championships in Schladming, Austria. He won not only GS but also two other events, completing a trifecta unheard of since the aviators-and-striped-sweater days of Jean-Claude Killy, clear back in 1968.
By the time Ligety flew out to California last May, jump-starting his training for Sochi and also for the 2013–2014 World Cup season, he had two clear training goals. First, in pursuit of that overall World Cup title, Ligety had to refine his technique in the regular slalom, his weakest event and a discipline that he respects so little that he has to make up games just to get himself motivated to practice. He tells his girlfriend, Mia, to ski the Mammoth slalom course ahead of him, then waits until she's almost to the bottom. Then he turns to coach Adam Cole and says, "Think I can catch her?"
"No, I don't," Cole says.
Ligety assaults the course, attempting to prove he can ski an entire run faster than his girlfriend can make two turns. Each time Ligety hits a gate, there are two loud sounds in close succession: a sharp plastic whack, when his hand and shin guards simultaneously strike the fiberglass pole, followed by a bass thump as that pole hits the snow. Whack-thump, whack-thump, whack-thump.
Later that night, during the team's spaghetti dinner in the living room of a rented Mammoth ski chalet, coach Cole tells me that any good racer can ski like Ligety on a gentle slope. "But they go up to anything moderate-pitched or bigger and their brain can't commit to pulling that full arc," Cole says. "You can watch Ted all you want, but when you start calculating that you're going 55 miles per hour on bulletproof ice on hills that normal, everyday skiers can't even imagine, with gates placed at different distances, at a rhythm that varies and the turn radius always changing, it's very different."
Ligety, with a plate of spaghetti in his lap, says, "When Bode Miller was one of the best GS skiers in the world, he was maybe like a sloppier version of me." It is quite a claim, given that Miller remains the winningest male American ski racer in history, with 33 World Cup medals and five Olympic medals, by comparison with Ligety's 19 and one. But Ligety means it, his eyes free of self-doubt. "It takes balls to ski deep," he says. "You have to, like, sack up, and be like, 'OK, I'm going to ski this clean or take the consequences.' "
Ligety's parents, both real estate agents, supported his competitive streak through Park City's elite Winter Sports School, where classes run April to October and leave the ski season free. At some level, Ligety is still living that adolescent dream with the U.S. ski team, bouncing year-round from World Cup race sites to training camps like the one in New Zealand where he and his teammates amused themselves a few years back, chasing an off-road car race up a river in a rented Subaru.
"My feet were six inches underwater driving the car, and we had Jimmy Cochran [another U.S. ski team athlete] on the roof, directing me to miss rocks in the river." They tore around a gravel parking lot next, skidding into a nearby field. "The exhaust caught the grass on fire underneath the car, and we had two flat tires," Ligety says, "but we pushed the car off the fire just in time and decided we shouldn't rally the rental cars that much." After that, with X Games freeskiing star Jon Olsson, Ligety and a few others bought two used beaters – a $400 Holden and a $600 BMW – and built a jump in a quarry. "We started off going with all tires six inches off the ground, built the jump higher, kept going faster, ended up getting the tires, like, six feet high." A little game of bumper cars came next, "until they didn't run anymore."
On a crystal-clear fall morning in Park City, where Ligety owns a three-bedroom in a manicured subdivision not far from his childhood home, he makes a few phone calls for Shred, the ski-and-mountain-bike clothing company he founded five years ago. Then he heads over to the U.S. ski team's Center of Excellence, a state-of-the-art athletic-training facility, where Ligety lifts weights and, yes, plays more basketball. ("I know," says Carey, "you'd think we were a basketball team.")
Afterward, Ligety takes me out mountain biking through big hillsides of sage and bitterbrush. He seems to be the guy eternally dragging old buddies up some random mountain on snow machines, building jumps and goading them to huck bigger airs than they're comfortable with. The heat of summer sees him doing roughly the same behind a waterskiing boat, competing to see who can lay over the deepest arcing turns while holding the rope in one hand.
Later, he cooks dinner for Martz and Martz's wife, Abbi, an NCAA GS champion from Colby College. Ligety opens beers from his Sub-Zero fridge, in a gleaming kitchen with a six-burner range set into the granite countertop. Ligety loves to cook and has a signature dish, jalapeño-cheddar mashed potatoes with chopped-up bratwurst, whipped together with an egg, and then patted into pancakes and fried.
"I guess you could say I invented that," he tells me, with sweet earnestness.
Ligety makes a variation tonight, plus rib eye steaks that he coats first in black pepper and then sears in a cast-iron skillet before shoving them into a hot oven. Waiting for the steaks, Ligety talks about the upcoming World Cup races. They were critical to the Olympics, he says, because a high World Cup ranking translates into an earlier starting position for Olympic races, when the snow is likely to be colder and therefore faster.
But then Ligety pulls those steaks from the oven, and I mention a years-ago story assignment about eating the best restaurant steaks in Las Vegas and interrogating renowned chefs on their tricks and techniques.
Ligety's blue eyes widen and his face tightens just like on the basketball court. "OK, then, tell me," he says, with a testy edge creeping into his voice. "How's my technique stack up?"
I cut the steak in front of me and look close. Then I say, "Excellent, actually – charred exterior, inside uniformly pink. That's impressive."
Martz chuckles nervously and says, "Yep, Ted's very proud of that."
Ligety, meanwhile – unamused and perhaps worried I was bullshitting – cuts into his own steak and leans over to look. Then he looks back at my steak. Then he looks at me, and his eyes narrow. Finally, he takes a bite and, while chewing, stares at the wall with firm satisfaction.