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.