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Olympics 2010 – Skier Ted Ligety: The Two Sides of American Alpine’s Golden Boy

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American alpine skier Ted Ligety will compete this week, weather permitting, in Vancouver. See the schedule. See our Beyond the Olympics feature for training tips, ski trips, gear, and more.

Text by Christian Camerota; Photo courtesy of Shred Optics 

The lives of an entrepreneur and a ski racer seem diametrically opposed. That is, until you meet Ted Ligety. Ligety is not normal, of course. Far from it. How else do you explain a compulsion to fearlessly hurtle yourself down a 45-degree-angled, skating-rink slick mountain of ice at 70+mph? But that’s what Ligety has chosen as his career, at least for the time being. And he’s not shy about professing his love for the perks of his job.

“Sometimes you feel like there’s other stuff you’d wanna do,” Ligety admits when asked if he ever feels like he’s missed out on anything. “But at the same time, like, being a ski racer is a pretty kick ass job, you know?” He laughs freely at the thought. “You get to go all over the world and you get to ski…I mean, I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love it as much as I do…my college friends are talking about fun college stories and I’m like, ‘Okay, well, I’m off in Europe right now winning races.’”

While many spend their 21st birthdays drinking themselves into a stupor, Ligety celebrated it little differently at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. He became the first American man (guy, boy, dude, take your pick) to win a gold medal since Tommy Moe 12 years earlier—and only the fourth American man to do it in the history of the sport. Ligety readily admits that he didn’t have a full understanding of what he’d accomplished at the time. At an age when many are waffling between their fourth and fifth majors, Ligety had reached the top of a podium that most only ever dream about.

“When I did it, I was kinda stunned by the whole situation,” he says. “I was kinda surprised, obviously…it was just one of those crazy dreams that comes true. But it’s crazy because it happened so early in my career, you know? It was surreal in that sense. And then luckily after that I was able to back it up with winning the Giant Slalom title and, two years after that, I’m continuing to do well.”

Do well, indeed. The guy’s moved on from his love of Slalom and Giant Slalom to become what he calls a “four event skier” and won a World Cup season title in 2008 in the Giant Slalom. And as for the upcoming Olympics in Vancouver?

“My goal is to win medals in the GS and Slalom, for sure, those are like the go-to, big events as far as the technical skiers go.”

All in a day’s work.

Speaking of a day’s work brings out Ligety’s other ambition, one he’s already spearheaded and expects may be his calling after he’s done ski racing in another “twelve years or so.” That ambition is Shred Optics, equal parts youthful brainchild and fallback plan if and when his racing career ends.

In Torino, Ligety became bored with an apparent lack of style in the offerings of most equipment companies. He wanted to add a little flair and what he says was somewhat of a joke led to him wearing hot pink and green goggles. The overwhelmingly positive response from fans and fellow skiers alike was enough to let Ligety know that there was not only room in the market, but a demand for flashier, more stylish ski racing gear.

So, the then 22-year-old Ligety founded his own company, Shred Optics, which specializes in sunglasses and goggles for, you guessed it, skiers. The company is still in its infancy, as between spending July and August training in New Zealand, a few months training in the Chilean Andes afterward, and then rounding out the training world tour back in the U.S., Ligety has little time leftover to build his global optics empire.

But that doesn’t mean this thing doesn’t have teeth. Ligety is responsible for most of the design work and his friend and co-founder Carlo Salmini has some serious know-how from founding his own company, which is why Ligety tapped him to help with his. The two are keeping things steady but quiet at the moment, while Ligety focuses on his all-consuming day job. But he wears his own gear when he races and the better he does, of course, the more press his brand gets. It’s kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy in that way.

Aside from Ligety’s ulterior motives of avoiding a desk job and developing an insurance policy in case (knock on wood) anything should go awry with his ski racing career, his other impetus for Shred is pretty fascinating. Bode Miller came up in our conversation and when asked what he thought of Bode’s antics, (had they helped the sport loosen up and be more true to its free-skiing roots? Or were they a ploy for attention and inappropriate in such a well-reputed, traditional sport?), his response was telling.

“I think ski racing, for a lot of years, kinda had the image of definitely being regimented, kind of stiffer and very old, traditional European. And I feel like in the last few years, Bode definitely pushed the envelope on that. A lot of the younger guys, even some of the Euro guys, are kind of more into the full ski scene…ski racers like to go free skiing, a couple of the guys are gnarly snowmobilers, as well, so I think right now it’s kind of transforming into a looser image.”

Enter Shred. Ingeniously, Ligety is set to capitalize on the liberation of ski racing from the old guard. That’s not to say, at all, that he doesn’t respect the sport’s history and the seriousness that comes along with international competition. On the contrary, he’s completely invested in it. As he says, “you can always have a good time, but when it comes down to it it’s a lot more fun to win than it is to be in 30th place. And in order to win, you have to sacrifice some of the external good times.”

But Ligety is poised to do both. His talent has been vetted by a gold medal and several championships and, at 24, he’s really only entering his prime, as most ski racers peak between the ages of 28 and 30. Meanwhile, he’s coloring the slopes and the sport with his own style and a laugh as explosive as he is out of the gate.

There’s just one thing. The dude’s partial to Park City. He grew up there, his friend and fellow skier TJ Lanning is from four houses down, and Ligety imagines living there, at least for part of the year, for the rest of his life. And that’s all well and good until those of us that have lived there mention Vail.

“The glorified truck stop, you mean?” Ligety replies.

Clearly, Ligety has no qualms about perpetuating the Utah/Colorado ski-country rivalry. He did concede that he likes Telluride and Aspen, but he made no bones about saying “those are really the only I-70 resorts” he’ll go to. Globally, though, he’s a little less picky. He’ll settle for Kitzbuhel/Schladming, which he says is “far and away the biggest, craziest thing you can ever go to. Ski racing in Austria is like the NFL in the U.S in a lot of ways…it’s one of those events I think everyone should go see…there’s 100,000 people there with flares and flags and being drunk and crazy…for somebody who’s not even a ski racing fan, they’d love it, too.”

And for those who think Ligety or the rest of the U.S. ski team might be forced to miss out on any of the fun, take solace in knowing they make a lot of their own.

“A couple years ago, before Schladming, we’d always listen to Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell. It kind of had this concert feel, where we’d get up there and be like ‘What’s up Schladming?!?!’ like Billy Idol does. It was hilarious.”