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Utah's Ted Ligety takes aim at another big-time Olympic gold moment

SALT LAKE CITY No wonder American skier Ted Ligety says he can't wait until the Vancouver Olympics.

It's hard to be patient when you drive like a banshee in a rush.

If you're a fan of skiing — actually, if you just watch the Winter Olympics — Ligety's name should ring a bell. He's the guy who blasted out of oblivion in the 2006 Games at Torino to win the combined downhill-slalom at the boyish age of 21. That made him the youngest American male ever to win a gold medal in an alpine event. Also, he is the first native Utahn to win a gold medal in a Winter Olympics.

"I think it's really cool, kind of almost surprising because of how many good skiers there are — and other winter sports, as well — in Utah," says Ligety. "But yeah, it's kind of cool to be the first gold-medal Olympian from Utah."

With the Winter Games just a week away, all the Park City native has to do now is get in his big-event mode, which shouldn't be too difficult.

The bigger the event, the better he looks.

They don't call him "Teddy Ball Game" — in reference to his penchant for starring in big events – for nothing.

"There's definitely more pressure (with the Olympics), without a doubt," he says. "But I think I actually do better under a lot of pressure. It helps me focus a little more. Otherwise, you try not to let it consume you too much."

Ligety wasn't especially well known entering the last Winter Olympics. But when controversial American Bode Miller and overall World Cup leader Michael Walchhofer of Austria missed gates in the slalom segment, and several others scratched or skied poorly, Ligety's prospects soared.

A guy who didn't make the USA development roster until he was 18 was suddenly global.

The nickname did have a certain ring: Ligety-split.

Since then, he hasn't done anything to discourage expectations. In 2007-08, he won a World Cup globe for the best overall giant slalom season. Last year, he finished third in GS and ninth overall. He currently leads this year's giant slalom standings and is seventh overall.

He has made the podium four times this season, including a gold in the giant slalom at Kranjska Gora. He has also notched second-place finishes in the Super G at Val d'Isere and the GS at Soleden.

Other than a brief detour, thanks to a broken hand and some ligament problems, his rise has continued.

"To this day, he says, "when people say I won an Olympic gold medal, it still kind of shocks me — that's me? It's really me?"

In the flesh.

He continues, "It's really cool in that sense. I'm still super-psyched and amazed by that achievement, I guess."

If all this seems to have occurred surprisingly fast, remember, that's how Ligety does business. He's a ski racer and speed is his game. But it's not limited to the slopes.

In 2006, he and a few teammates decided to stage a road rally during a trip to New Zealand. It was all pretty fun, ripping around a makeshift course, launching off ramps, right up until one of the rental cars caught fire (they quickly put it out).

They also blew the front tires, peeling them off the wheels.

Undeterred, the next year Ligety and friends purchased a use-and-abuse car for $700 instead — just in case another one decided to ignite.

The rally in New Zealand is now an annual event. (You can see one of his jumps on Youtube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DuidQ_a9rdqk.)

"The New Zealand trip is our little taste of anarchy every year," he says.

Ligety also says that, when in Germany, he and his teammates rent Audis and run them on the Autobahn, skimming along for an hour and a half at speeds averaging 155 mph (250 km/h).

"The tires said we should only go 210 (km/h), " he grins, "so we figured we were OK."

Ligety admits the Olympics will be different this time around. With 20 World Cup podiums and five victories behind him, he's no longer a secret.

"The demands," he allows, "will be higher."

And things will be coming at him faster. Always faster.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com