Editor's note: Deseret News reporter Amy Donaldson is in Pyeongchang, South Korea, covering the 2018 Winter Games. This is the eighth in a series of articles profiling Utahns competing in the Olympics.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — It wasn’t age or injury that softened and focused the hard-charging, thrill-embracing, two-time Olympic champion Ted Ligety as he prepared to compete in his fourth Olympics this month.
It was a cherub-faced infant named Jax.
As the 33-year-old Park City resident begins competing in his fourth Olympics in Tuesday’s combined, he does so with a new kind of contentment and confidence found not through tougher training or more podiums, but through fatherhood.
“It’s a different feeling for sure,” he said, an involuntary smile spreading across his face at last fall’s Olympic Media Summit.
At the time, Jax was about three months old. As Ligety prepares to defend his giant slalom gold, the only son of Mia and Ted Ligety approaches eight months, and he already has made an appearance with his dad on a podium, doing so last month.
"He's getting quite the personality, crawling around," said Ligety, whose wife and son have been traveling with him since December. "It's been fun to come off the hill and know that I'm going to spend time with them."
Ligety could point to a lot of things that have changed him in the last four years. A knee injury and back surgery, as well as just the impact of a demanding sport on an aging body. All have taken their toll on him mentally and physically.
But nothing may have had more of an impact on him than becoming a dad.
He said it’s made him more emotional and more focused, even if it’s completely changed his travel routine.
“As it did when my wife started traveling with me, it kind of allows for an escape on the road,” Ligety said. “My son will be an even better one. It’s a good way to have a different perspective.”
The wear and tear of the sport have forced the five-time giant slalom world champ to change his workouts, but the efficiency stems from his desire to hang with a guy who can’t stop drooling.
“It’s been fun having Jax on the road with me,” Ligety said in an interview about a week before he left for Pyeongchang. “It definitely focuses you more. I kind of think I don’t want to be lollygagging around, wasting time. I want to be super efficient with my time because that’s time away from him.”
He admits there are some sleep-deprived nights.
“We have an adjustment every hotel,” he said laughing. “He wakes up early in the morning, which fits well with my schedule, but not so much with my wife’s schedule. On race nights, I’ll sleep in a different room so I can get full, uninterrupted sleep.”
Some of the changes Ligety has made this season have nothing to do with his growing family. Chronic back pain forced him to have surgery last year and has caused him to change his brutish approach to training.
“My training has definitely evolved over the last couple of years, more so because of my back than my knee,” he said, referring to his torn ACL of a couple years ago. “Over my career, I’ve been a little bit of a hammerhead training-wise, just going to the gym and going super hard all the time. Maybe I ignored or wouldn’t really dedicate as much time as I should have for some of the smaller, longevity-type exercises. I’ve always gone for the most bang for the buck in the shortest amount of time.”
In addition to changing his workouts and finding more focus and calm through fatherhood, he also addressed some of his physical issues with back surgery. He said this is the first season in quite a few that he hasn’t dealt with chronic pain.
As for motivation, Ligety has never lacked for that competitive edge.
“I’m always a really intrinsically motivated person,” he said, shrugging off the suggestion that he might find more significant purpose in coming back from several seasons shortened by injuries and surgeries.
“I think having a couple of years where you had your season cut short gives you an extra hunger and drive,” he said, “but I’m still motivated. I was still motivated before that.”
Ligety said his goals come more from his own questions than those of others. “I want to prove stuff to myself,” he said softly, “and I’m not as worried about other people.”
He said the expectations are most likely lower for him in this Olympics than in 2014 when he entered Sochi with three world championships. He rose to the occasion earning gold in the giant slalom, becoming the only U.S. man to earn two gold medals in alpine skiing.
But then 2016 ended with a knee injury and 2017 forced him to have back surgery.
“There were a lot of expectations (in Sochi), and I was super happy to be able to perform there,” he said. “But now I’ve had two years of injuries, so expectations are probably a little less, but I still have high expectations of myself.”
He said his recent evolution is no different than what any other athlete goes through as he or she ages. The sport evolves and the demands shift.
Those who remain competitive find ways to stay in the mix.
“Once you reach a level, you don’t want to go back a level, so you’re always trying to figure out ways to get faster so you can stay at that high level,” he said. “Two years of injuries in a row is definitely a tough adjustment for sure. It wasn’t something that I’ve ever had to deal with before. It takes you out of your rhythm and intensity, and it’s hard to find that perfect sweet spot of racing, consistent and confident.”
Ligety earned a third-place finish in a World Cup just before the Games, and said he feels like all the moving parts are coming together at the right time.
“I feel like it’s getting close, like I’m honing in on it skiing-wise and equipment-wise,” he said. “It’s just getting back up to speed.”