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Olympics / Sports

Ted Ligety looks to escape Miller's Olympic shadow

Speedskaters, figure-skaters and curlers are nice on ice. But there's nobody cooler at a Winter Olympics than the alpine skiers.

Helmeted and colorfully outfitted, these slopeside superheroes flash boldly down treacherous mountain courses, shifting and maneuvering like Porsches through mists of displaced snow.

Has there ever been a more compelling Olympic image than Franz Klammer flying recklessly through Innsbruck's downhill course in 1976 to capture a medal whose color, fittingly, matched his famously gold ski suit?

At more recent Games, some of the daring Alpine skiers' luster has been stolen by Olympic interlopers -- snowboarders and skiing aerialists. But when the 2014 Sochi Games open Friday, those traditional skiers, and in particular the American skiers, could be back in the spotlight.

Even without injured Lindsey Vonn, the 20-person U.S. team that will compete at these Olympics is the deepest, most talented and experienced the nation has ever assembled, one capable of winning a fistful of gold.

There's five-time Olympian Bode Miller, the sport's 36-year-old bad boy who's hoping to add to his U.S.-best five-medal collection. There's Julia Mancuso, who won a gold in 2006 and two silvers four years later. There's Mikaela Shiffrin, at 18 already the world's top female slalom specialist.

And then there's Ted Ligety, the blond, toothy, fresh-faced epitome of a ski racer, who appears ready to emerge from Miller's long shadow and, maybe, become America's breakout star at the 2014 Olympics.

Last spring at Schaldming, Austria, the 29-year-old Utah native became just the fifth man in history and the first since legendary Jean-Claude Killy in 1968 to win three gold medals at a World Championship.

He won a gold medal in the combined at the 2006 Olympics, his first Olympic appearance. He is a four-time world champion in the Super-G, or giant slalom.

His mastery of that latter event is such that he's won it 20 times in World Cup competition, including four straight this season, and at one point he went nearly two years without missing a Super-G podium.

At Sochi, he should be the prohibitive favorite in his pet event.

"Of all the skiers in all the disciplines, he stands out the most in his," ex-U.S. ski-team racer Steve Porino, now an NBC Olympic analyst, said during a recent teleconference.

That's high praise since it's long been believed that Super-G is the truest test of a great skier, demanding both the speed of a world-class downhiller and the finesse of a slalom specialist.

"It is high art," said Porino. "Some people can watch it. Some people can understand it. Some people can reason through it. But not a lot can do it.

"You can't just be big and strong. You can't just be ridiculously quick. You really have to have it all."

But this season, Ligety, long considered a Super-G specialist, has shown more versatility. In January, for the first time at a World Cup meet, he captured the combined gold medal. That discipline combines the times from downhill, slalom and giant slalom.

Asked recently to size up his chances against the world's best at Sochi, Ligety was characteristically both cautious and upbeat.

"It's going to be difficult to repeat what I did at Schaldming, that was a dream two weeks," Ligety said. "But I also know I have the ability to be on the podium in both combined and Super-G if things go right for me."

In order for them to go right, he knows that given his recent record, he will have to deal with Olympic-sized pressures at Sochi.

"Obviously, the expectations will be a lot higher for me this time around," he said. "But I really think that I'm in a much better place than I've ever been, and not just with my skiing but mentally too."

Ligety grew up in the resort town of Park City, Utah, where indulging his love of the sport was easy.

An accomplished junior skier, he had the misfortune to emerge unto the world's ski stage at the same time Miller was hogging the men's spotlight.

"Everyone always wants to talk about Bode and that's fine by me," Miller said. "I think that any time Bode is around, he's the star. He's done a heck of a lot more in this sport than I have, for sure. I'm still a long way off from his career achievements.

"He's got an extremely interesting story and an extremely interesting personality and I'm perfectly fine with all that. ... Now that he's back (from a serious knee injury) and in good shape, it'll be good to have somebody like that pushing me every day in practice."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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