Back when no one really knew his name, Theodore Sharp “Ted” Ligety stunned the skiing world by winning the combined event at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin. At 21, he was the first American man to claim Olympic skiing gold in over a decade.
Eight years later, fresh off a stellar 2013 season—and with his company, Shred Optics, continuing to grow—the six-time national champ is ready for a return to the spotlight. As Ligety prepped to compete in four events in Sochi (including next Wednesday’s Giant Slalom, where he’s strongest), we caught up with him to ask about his mindset, overcoming adversity, and, well, his mom.
“The easiest way to get motivated is to enjoy what you’re doing. You can’t let yourself get frustrated. Make it fun.”
How are things different going into this Olympics?
Having done as well as I did at world championships last year, winning three gold medals, has definitely brought a lot more into play, more sponsorship obligations, more media stuff. So it’s just a matter of balancing those things out, but overall it’s cool to have the results to justify being one of the top names going into the Olympics.
So you’re ready for the pressure?
Yeah. I think so. I mean, the most pressure I have is the pressure I put on myself. I’m super internally motivated. I’m not so worried about the pressure otherwise.
Just watched your inspiring P&G Raising an Olympian video. Did doing that make you appreciate your mom’s support more?
I’m super honored to be part of the P&G family of athletes. Doing the film, Mom was pretty nervous. We got to reminisce and kind of help her with her messaging, which was pretty funny to do. It was fun to think back on being a kid, stuff I haven’t thought about in awhile.
For Made Man readers who are dads, any advice for supporting their kids in sports?
There are a lot of approaches. My parents never really pushed me—skiing was a fun family activity that kept my brother and me out of trouble. We were about ten minutes from Park City, so it was kind of our babysitter. They supported me, they helped me along the way, but they ever demanded I go to training or anything.
They weren’t making you get up at 5 a.m. to do pushups and situps?
If they had, I probably would have rebelled and wouldn’t have been as into it. Them letting it be my thing added to my motivation to work harder and fostered my love of the sport and my independence. They just wanted me to have a passion about something. Once I fostered that for ski racing, they let me take it from there.
The video talks about how as a teenager, you struggled competitively, and according to your mom, girls were beating you. What enabled you to stick with it?
The good thing about ski racing is, even if you are not as competitive as you think you should be, the actual act of skiing is a lot of fun, just pushing yourself. That really drove me. When I wasn’t on the course, I would free ski the rest of the mountain, which also helped me with ski racing. That kept me in it when I had less than ideal results.
And you thought your commute was dicey…
What advice would you give to anyone facing adversity?
The easiest way to get motivated is to enjoy what you’re doing. You can’t let yourself get frustrated. Make it fun.
Would you say that sometimes you make progress even when you don’t think you are? You’re struggling and struggling and don’t realize success is right around the corner?
Definitely. That has very much been the case in my career. I worked extremely hard from ages 14 to 17 without a huge improvement. And then between 17 and 18, I made a big jump. And when I made the ski team at 19, that was another huge jump. I was slogging along for several years, and then all of a sudden, a couple things clicked together, things that I had been working on for years, and I went from three-hundredth in the world to fortieth. It can happen like that.
Has there been a big change in skiing strategy and approach compared to, say, 10 years ago?
Very small tweaks in technique and equipment can make a difference. We watch video every day after training. One change in the past couple years, I’m also sponsored by GoPro, and we’ve started using Go Pro cameras. Follow cams allow me to see my whole body, to look at my performance from new angles.
What would be your number one tip for the ordinary humans among us who’d like to be better skiers?
You should be really good at walking in your boots, because it uses different muscles. If you’re good at walking in your boots you’re a good skier, and bad skiers generally aren’t very good at it. Also stand up tall. You always want to be pushing in the front of your boots. That’s how you can get the skis to carve around.
Is there anything you say to yourself right before you start racing?
I don’t have a specific thing I say. Just a couple minutes before, I go through my game plan of what I’m going to do on the race hill. Then, when I’m in the start gate, I’m pretty blank. I’m just thinking about going fast. On the course I want to be just reacting instinctually. I don’t want to have to have too many thoughts going through my head.
For casual fans, what’s the no. 1 reason to check out the skiing in Sochi?
One of the coolest things about skiing is that it’s not predictable. Course conditions change from guy to guy. You’re not all in a pool with a consistent warm temperature. Wind, weather, light—there’s so much going on in a race. Even if you’re the favorite, you don’t always win. It’s an ever-changing sport, there’s a huge element of risk, crashes and spectacular awesome runs. So there’s unpredictability—and the potential for carnage as well.