Ligety has vowed to race for at least one more winter, largely because this season was his first back on snow after two years spent recovering from serious knee and back surgeries. Ligety said another Olympics in four years, when he will be 37, was not “out of the realm of possibilities.”
But his eyes betrayed him. His wife, Mia Pascoe, and 7-month-old son, Jax, were standing not far away in the finish area. Ligety smiled and added: “When you have a family it kind of changes your perspective. We’ll see how it goes there; there are other priorities in life now besides ski racing.”
If Sunday was the last Olympic appearance for Ligety, which means the last time that most Americans will see him competing, he leaves a legacy as a vital force in skiing in the United States.
He is the only American man to win two Alpine Olympic gold medals. He has won five world championships across three different events, he is a four-time Olympian, and his five World Cup season-long titles in giant slalom make him one of the greatest racers in the history of that discipline.
He introduced giant slalom techniques that were considered revolutionary, tactics his rivals toiled for years to replicate. Outspoken and at times a provocateur, for a dozen years he was a magnetic personality on the World Cup circuit and one of the few American stars who bridged the gap from the Bode Miller era to the budding Mikaela Shiffrin era.
Ligety also worked hard to drag ski racing out of tedious, old-style ways. He co-founded a helmet, eyewear and snow sports accessories company called Shred that was aimed at, as he said, “bringing a youthful vibe back to skiing — something the snowboarding movement stole from us.”
Ligety was also at the center of a quarrel with the European-based ski establishment, a battle he ultimately won and probably lost at the same time.
Ligety had been the leading World Cup giant slalom racer for several years when F.I.S., as the ski racing’s international governing body is known by its French initials, decided to lengthen the minimum ski length racers were permitted to use in the giant slalom.
The longer skis meant that turning around the gates would take more time and effort and Ligety immediately railed against the changes in an insightful blog post that was also a stinging poke in the eye for the federation’s leaders.
Ligety, always one to tinker with his equipment, then decided to study his new skis with the meticulous eye of the engineer he never became. To further his examination, he also came up with gadgets that were meant to give him more data, like a curved post he affixed to his helmet on which he placed a mini-camera so he could better analyze his own skiing.
In time, Ligety devised new techniques to make longer skis turn more quickly, which was the opposite of their intended effect. He stunned the field in the first race with the new skis, by winning by nearly three seconds over the second-place finisher, an almost unheard-of margin of victory.
Throughout the next two seasons, Ligety continued to dominate giant slalom on the World Cup. He also won the giant slalom at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
But ultimately, the longer skis, and perhaps the new and more demanding methods used to turn them rapidly, put added stress on the torso and legs of giant slalom racers, many of whom were suddenly experiencing debilitating lower body injuries. In early 2016, Ligety tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in a training session. Almost exactly one year later, he had back surgery meant to alleviate severe pain he had been dealing with for many months.
Before this season, the federation reduced the minimum lengths for giant slalom skis.
Ligety, however, who has shown flashes of his old self, has yet to regain his old form in a consistent manner. That was again apparent in Sunday’s race.
He did not make any excuses.
“I just didn’t seem to have the speed in my legs today, I guess,” he said. “I just couldn’t find the timing.”
Asked if it was hard not to think of Sunday as his last time on the Olympic stage, where he first made his name as a surprise gold medal winner at 21, Ligety shrugged his shoulders.
“Yeah, of course, the Olympics are the big show,” he said. “Everybody looks forward to the Olympic races and in America that’s what gets the attention. So it’s only natural to think about that here.”
He then talked about his family, included his parents, who had come to Pyeongchang and were in the grandstand watching Sunday.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to perform at a high level for them,” Ligety said.
“But my son, Jax, is 7 months old and he doesn’t really care,” he said. “That’ll be my reprieve today.”