Park City, UT – The Audi FIS Ski World Cup opening weekend in Soelden, Austria is a celebration of the sport of ski racing. Thousands descend on the tiny Oetztal valley to cheer on their favorites. High atop the stands in the Glacier Stadium, a hard core group of fans waved the American flag proudly, holding Ted Ligety banners for all to see. There’s nothing unusual about that. After all, the Park City native has long been a star of the sport.
But what unusual was that this group – the Ted Ligety Fan Club – didn’t come from America. They weren’t hometown supporters from Park City. Many of them didn’t even ski. Yet they drove over 600 kilometers from Saxony, in east central Germany, simply to march down Soelden’s main street in the Fan Club Parade, try to meet up with Ligety during an autograph session at a local ski shop and to cheer on an athlete most of them had never met. Last winter, a contingent of them came to all the way to Vail/Beaver Creek in Colorado.
Why do they do it? “We just like the way he skis,” said fan club leader Lutz Ebert. It was as simple as that.
Fan clubs are pretty common across Europe. The norm is for passionate friends and neighbors from local resorts to come together in support of hometown heroes. In the past decade, though, the U.S. Ski Team has begun to transcend national borders. Going back to the early days of Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves, fans across Europe became more and more attracted to the wild west style of the U.S. Ski Team stars. The red, white and blue is becoming a staple at European World Cups, and they aren’t all being waved by Americans.
It’s been a decade now since a then-21-year-old Ligety was a surprise Olympic champion in the combined at Torino. Since then he’s gone on to win Olympic gold in giant slalom, three straight World Championship titles and four season-long crystal globes.
So what it is about his style of skiing that attracts fans from around the world? Many of the sport’s quintessential heroes made their name in downhill – winning the big ones like the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuehel or the Lauberhorn in Wengen. Ted’s specialty has been GS. Don’t get us wrong though – he can throw it down in speed, as evidenced by his 2013 World Championship super G gold.
But when you think of Ted Ligety, you think of him arcing a GS turn – literally prone to the snow, fingers rippling off the icy piste. You see his skis vibrating incessantly in the slo-mo replay – how does he do that? You’re struck by his calm, cool demeanor – even in the face of adversity – as well as his familiar Putnam Investments baseball cap standing in front of the leaderboard.
A year ago in Soelden, Austrian hero Marcel Hirscher was the man of the hour. Ligety was 10th. That was painful. Even more painful was Hirscher taking the title away.
“The first race is always a bit of a mystery,” said Ligety after winning on the Rettenbach glacier on Sunday. “Soelden in a lot of ways feels a bit like a World Championships or Olympics because there’s this added anxiety because you don’t know where you stand. It’s nice to start out on the right foot and to get that confidence back.”
For the Ted Ligety Fan Club, it was a pretty cool weekend. They met up with Ted Friday afternoon, hoisted an obstler at a local restaurant that evening, headlined the fan club parade Saturday and cheered their hearts out for the American ski star on Sunday.
Ted Ligety isn’t much on records. Not yet, anyway. He set another on Sunday with his fourth Soelden win, moving ahead of the incomparable Hermann Maier with whom he was tied at three.
“At this point I try not to think about records,” said Ligety. “I still want to ski race for a bunch more years and I think I have a lot of years left If I start thinking about that it clouds the direction of my skiing.”
But the most poignant accolade of the weekend came from Ligety’s own rival, Marcel Hirscher, who finished third. It was tell-tale about the way Ligety approaches his preparation.
“Well, we learned one thing today,” said Hirscher at the press conference. “Ted Ligety did his homework this summer.”