The Can't-Miss Sochi Showdown: Bode Miller And Ted Ligety

Sochi’s slopes will see one of the most exciting showdowns of the 2014 Games, as U.S. Ski Team champions Bode Miller and Ted Ligety battle the Europeans, and each other, for another chance at gold.

Mark Leffingwell/Reuters

Two medal contenders I’ll be watching at the Sochi Olympics are Americans Bode Miller and Ted Ligety. As athletes, Miller and Ligety are two of the most accomplished ski racers today—each holding Olympic and World Championship titles, among many other honors that have assured their place among the sport’s historic greats. As teammates, they enjoy a healthy respect and rivalry, helping and sometimes beating each other as they square off against Europe’s fastest alpine stars. As individuals, the 36-year-old Miller and the 29-year-old Ligety are a generation apart. They share an affable ski-bum quality common to the U.S. Ski Team culture, but otherwise, their personalities are like day and night—Miller is often blunt, outspoken, and in the news for non-ski-related scandals; Ligety is soft-spoken, low-key and less visible away from the race course.

Heading into Sochi, Ligety and Miller are arguably two of toughest, most talented, and most innovative athletes the U.S. Ski Team has ever sent into Olympic alpine competition. They will battle for medals across five events, flying down icy slopes at speeds up to 90 mph, each hoping to get down the mountain faster than everyone else to win gold.

While many Americans may not have noticed, in a sport traditionally dominated by Europeans, American alpine skiers have been winning a lot over the last several years. On the World Cup circuit and in the last Olympic Games, U.S. alpine skiing managed to reposition itself from a team that fielded only one or two stars a decade into one of the world’s best teams.

The skier most connected to that stratospheric rise is Bode Miller. The U.S. Ski Team has never produced an athlete like Miller, the rebel ski racer, tremendously talented, complex, and often defiant.

At his roots, Miller was the anti-child prodigy athlete, growing up with hippie parents in a New Hampshire cabin without electricity. Home-schooled until third grade, he used to trek through the snow with a few dollars for lunch money to ski all day at Cannon Mountain. He got into alpine racing, liked it, and early on developed his own headstrong approach to the sport. Miller would do anything, even if it went completely against ski racing orthodoxy and the advice of his coaches, to get down the race course “as fast as the natural universe will allow.”

“Everything he does is so unconventional,” says Ski Racing World Cup reporter Hank McKee. “Bode’s style is not the way a coach would draw up a ski racer if they were trying to create one. But he has his own sense about what is faster.”

One identifiable Miller trait is his technique—flailing his arms and moving fore and aft in ways racers just don’t do—to get his skis down the course faster. Another hallmark of Bode’s quest for speed is taking more risks than any other racer, choosing course sections to ski as straight as possible to the next turn, even at danger of crashing, to gain those elusive hundredths of seconds that often separate 1st place from runner-up.

This go-for-broke style earned Miller more DNFs than finishes in his World Cup circuit debut. In Europe, Miller would have been unlikely to make a national ski team, or would have been kicked off long before he found success. In his early career, star skiers found his spectacular crashes humorous. Few of them were laughing a couple years later when, through tenacity and raw ability, Miller pulled his unconventional style together and started to beat them.

He would go on to capture the youth spirit of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, winning two silver medals, and in 2005 reached the top of the ski world as the first American in 22 years to take the World Cup title. Even then, he won ski racing’s highest honor in a distinctly “Bode” way, falling or failing to finish in a third of his races. “Sure, statistically I could have won [the title] by finishing all my races in 3rd or 4th place. That’s just not me,” Miller said. Nobody knew what to expect when he raced: an on-the-edge win, spectacular crash, or one of his amazing recoveries. In a 2005 Bormio, Italy downhill he lost a ski off a jump at over 60mph, stayed up, and skied the rest of the course.

Heading into the Turin Winter Olympics, Miller’s on- and off-slope antics were shaping his legend. By 2005, he was a rock star in Europe, mobbed walking down streets and gaining high-dollar endorsements. He was notoriously direct with the ever encroaching media, getting into trouble in a Rolling Stone interview when he hinted that it should be common knowledge Lance Armstrong was doping. He openly criticized World Cup ski organizers and spoke freely about his post-race partying—something not commonly talked about by endorsement-conscious athletes.

Despite all his fame, Miller’s consistent support of a younger crop of U.S. racers stayed relatively behind-the-scenes. “When Bode found success, he took it upon himself to share his experience to help other teammates,” recalls former U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Phil McNichol. “He pushed younger racers, and even us coaches to think outside the box on how to ski faster.”

Miller mentored teammates in practice and helped them on the race circuit, frequently on the radio after his runs to give course pointers to the junior athletes up top. In 2005, one of those young racers was Ted Ligety.

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Ligety had worked his way up from the D-squad to A-squad of the U.S. Ski Team, gaining a World Cup giant slalom slot in Soelden, Austria. While Miller was battling for first with Austrian icon Herman Maier, the 20-year-old Ligety came from a 64th start place to ski the fastest second run of the day. “Bode took notice. He was very supportive and welcoming to the young kid stepping up in the game,” recalls McNichol.

Going into the 2006 Turin Olympics, Bode became the touted star of the Games. Sports analysts predicted five possible medals and Nike created a multi-million dollar “Join Bode” ad campaign. Given Miller’s iconoclastic nature, it was probably not a good idea for the U.S. Ski Team or Bode to put himself in that limelight position. He struggled with efforts to make him the smiling poster boy of the Games, openly criticizing fame and the commercialization of the Olympics on one hand, while lackadaisically soaking it up on the other.

Failing to medal, combined with a widely circulated photo of him fêting in a bar with a Playboy Bunny, sealed Miller’s U.S. media massacre. He would later get hate mail from the U.S. public. Part of his Turin unraveling was that Miller clearly did not go in with the Olympic spirit he brought to Salt Lake City. It was more a PR disaster for him than the athletic failure that pundits like Bob Costa suggested. Miller competed in all five alpine events. In the Olympic combined (then three runs) the U.S. Ski Team breathed a near collective sigh of relief when Miller appeared within one run of gold. Then course referees announced he straddled a gate. Miller was disqualified from any shot of a medal or Turin redemption.

Before Miller had cleared the finish area, a young Ted Ligety was in the start house up top. In a shocking turn of events, Ligety put down two amazing runs to win Olympic gold—the same medal that the U.S. Ski Team had nearly written off with Miller’s ejection.

From Turin, as Ligety continued his rise to success in the alpine ski world, he and Miller would interact more as peers. But Ligety’s path would create much less fanfare, owing in part to his very different disposition. In person, Ligety is fairly humble, and low-key—almost enigmatic. He’s potentially one of the most successful American ski racers ever that the public knows so little about. In his conversations with me and most everybody else, he’s pretty much kept the talk to ski racing, his goals, and the rise of the U.S. Ski Team, with an occasional reference to skiing powder. Ligety also gives a lot of time to supporting junior racer programs, like NASTAR Nationals, and he founded his own ski equipment company, Shred.

Ligety’s background is much more typical of the small number of athletes who break through to dominance in a sport. He’s shown a singular commitment to becoming one of alpine skiing’s best racers. This has been backed up by relentless training, unbreakable focus, and family sacrifice. Growing up in Park City, Utah, he forged a partnership toward his dreams at a young age with his parents (Bill and Cyndi), attending summer race camps and entering one of the U.S.’s elite alpine boarding schools. Before winning Olympic gold, he raced with a strip of duct tape across his then sponsorless helmet with “Mom & Dad” jotted on it in marker.

Post-Turin Ligety showed increasing ski prowess in the giant slalom (GS) discipline, considered alpine’s most important, requiring a mastery of technique and speed. By 2008 he’d won his first World Cup GS season title, only the third U.S. male to do so, the second being Miller in 2004.

From 2008, an ebb and flow of continued success developed between Ligety and Miller, with Ted dominating the GS discipline and Bode becoming more of a speed specialist. While Ligety missed the 2009 GS title, Miller won his second World Cup overall that year. In 2009 Miller would have one of his worst seasons, while Ligety won his first World Championship medal.

Going into 2010 Vancouver Olympics, few expectations were on Miller. Learning from Turin, he largely avoided the media all together. This time the pressure was on Ligety to win GS gold and defend his Olympic combined title. Ligety fell short and Miller pulled off a Triple Crown, winning bronze, silver, and gold. “I just shut a lot of the other stuff out to focus on what I loved in the first place, ski racing,” he told me in 2010.

While Miller took a ski racing hiatus in 2012 and 2013 to rehab an ailing knee, Ligety’s accomplishments would reach historic levels. Ironically, Ligety’s success would lend itself to an unexpected and unpopular rule change by the sport’s governing body, the Federation International du Ski (FIS). In 2012, FIS announced a new requirement increasing the minimum turn radius of GS skis by eight meters. The move was supposedly for safety reasons, to force more skidding and slower turns. Ligety, initially one of the most vocal critics of the move, eventually accepted it, while quietly adopting an “if you can’t beat ‘em, then beat ‘em” approach. He upped his game during the off season and figured out how to ski GS and the new skis better than anyone else. In Soelden, Austria in the fall of 2012 he made a bold statement by winning the World Cup’s opening race on the new skis by a hefty margin. Contrary to what the FIS intended, he was actually skiing faster under the new rules than before.

At the 2013 Alpine World Championships Ligety became the first man in 45 years to win three championship gold medals. By the end of last season he was winning ski races over rivals like Austria’s Marcel Hirscher by nearly three second margins. In ski racing that’s something akin to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game. “Ted entered another universe in his GS skiing. His technique is so superior. His movements, his technical application so advanced, he’s worked so hard on it, that he can ski faster than the best,” commented Phil McNichol.

Coming into this Olympic year World Cup season, Ligety’s old teammate Miller has bounced back. As they round the corner to Sochi, much has changed and some has stayed the same. Personally, as the media attention has picked up, Ligety has kept his story centered on skiing, offering little about his private life in his profiles or commercials. Miller has matured quite a bit, now married and a father, yet still in the headlines for things other than skiing—namely a high profile custody case with a former girlfriend.

On the slopes, Ligety continues dominate. In December’s Beaver Creek World Cup GS he had established a sizable lead, with a clinical and nearly flawless first run. Who was to rival Ligety in this pre-Olympic benchmark race? Not the Austrians or French, but his teammate and former mentor Miller, who skied down hands flailing, pushing so hard he almost crashed out of the race. After not having been on a GS podium since 2007, Miller was Ligety’s only real challenger in the second run, with the Americans going Ligety, Miller 1, 2. “I wanted to let him know ‘I was coming for you’ and there was no coasting,” Miller said. Ligety’s comments:“To share the podium with Bode is awesome. I’m a little surprised, actually. He doesn’t like it when I say that.”

As the two champions race in Sochi (Miller is on his 5th Olympics and Ligety, his 3rd) they will lead a deep U.S. alpine team each helped inspire (like young teen phenom Mikaela Shiffrin), while competing at the highest level in the sport they’ve both indelibly changed. For the European alpine teams, once dominant to the U.S.’s underdog status, any of their athletes in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place will not rest easy if Miller and Ligety are still up top. In Sochi’s alpine finish areas, expect no premature calls to sports agents or celebrations among the Austrians if Bode and Ted have not come down the mountain.