Ted Ligety climbed into a minivan Tuesday night and coughed. Then he coughed again. And again. "Feeling pretty so-so,'' said Ligety. "Just can't really breathe.'' This was 90 minutes after Ligety, 21, had stunned the ski racing world -- and, frankly, himself -- by winning the Olympic gold medal in the combined, the hybrid event that links a run of downhill with two runs of slalom.
Bode Miller, who should have won the combined by about five seconds but straddled a gate in the first run of slalom, was disqualified and is now oh-for-two in the Games, has a word he likes to use to describe significance. That word is "epic." With props to Bode, who could use some at this point, Ligety's victory was epic.
It was epic not just because Ligety is the youngest U.S. male skiing gold medalist in history (and the youngest to win any medal since 20-year-olds Billy Kidd and Jimmy Heuga took silver and bronze in the 1964 slalom), not because Ligety has been on the U.S. Ski Team for only three years and on the World Cup for two years, and not even because the Olympic gawd-almighty Games was only the second full-on combined in which Ligety has ever participated and the first major victory of his life.
It was also epic because he won it sick as a dog. "I hardly slept at all last night,'' said Ligety. He rooms in the Olympic village with teammate Scott Macartney. "As soon as I went to bed, I started coughing and hacking up all sorts of nasty stuff and then I just started tossing and turning,'' said Ligety. "By the time I got up I felt pretty whipped.''
A slalom specialist, Ligety skied a solid, unspectacular noontime downhill, finishing three seconds behind leader Miller but only one second behind Benni Raich of Austria, a prohibitive medal contender. Then he went back to his room. "I just spun [on a spinning bike] a little bit, watched the Nordic races on TV and tried to eat some food and hydrate as much as possible,'' Ligety said. "And I kept popping zinc lozenges.''