SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — Ted Ligety will be the overwhelming favorite when the Olympic ski season opens on Sunday with a World Cup giant slalom on Rettenbach glacier.
The American has won this race for the past two years and finished on the podium for the past five.
A year ago, Ligety didn't just win here, he dominated with a massive victory margin of 2.75 seconds. Taking advantage of extensive preparation on newly shaped skis introduced last season, he went on to win six of eight giant slaloms on the circuit.
"I hope to come close to that," Ligety said on Thursday. "But people have figured out the skis by now and I can't really expect to win GS by those kind of margins."
Ligety also won three gold medals at last season's world championships — a feat no man had accomplished since French great Jean-Claude Killy won four 45 years earlier.
So how does he find motivation having already achieved so much?
"Ted is internally motivated, has always been internally motivated and that's never been a question," U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick said.
"The challenge now, after a year like that, is everyone wants a piece of him — media, industry, commercials, the foundation, marketing. So he's been busy. But he's done a good job to make sure that hasn't interfered with his training and keeping focused on what is important. He's working on getting better every day."
While Ligety is hoping to peak for the Sochi Games in February, he also wants to win the overall World Cup.
Ligety broke the 1,000-point barrier for the first time last season but he still finished third overall behind Marcel Hirscher of Austria and Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway.
"The overall challenge is going to be able to execute week in and week out," Rearick said. "He was able to do that in GS consistently, now it's about taking that same kind of consistency into the slalom and super-G. Last year we saw a real, big gain in his super-G and now we need to make that same jump in slalom."
Ligety showed his super-G potential by winning that event at the worlds, and his main emphasis in preseason training has been on slalom.
"Hopefully that's the formula to win the overall," he said. "The overall is every World Cup skier's big goal and every year I round out my skiing. It's not easy though."
To help Ligety achieve his overall goal, the U.S. squad has a special multi-event team of coaches to work exclusively with Ligety and fellow allrounder Bode Miller, who is back after taking a season off to let his surgically repaired left knee fully heal.
"My knee is good. It's a little puffy but it's been that way for a long time," Miller said. "Overall it feels better than it has since '01."
Having sat out last season, the reshaped GS skis are completely new to Miller.
"It's been difficult because I haven't had a chance to ski at a very high level," he said. "So when I got on the race hill here it was a bit of a shock. ... It's less fun, more work, but it seems OK."
Miller also has a solid record in Soelden. He won in 2003 and 2004 and has eight consecutive top-10 finishes.
Still, having not raced for so long, Miller wasn't about to make any predictions for Sunday.
"It's an intimidating race hill," he said. "I hope to be in touch and gain some points."
Hirscher and Svindal are again the favorites for the overall title. Hirscher took the coveted crown the past two seasons and Svindal won it in 2007 and 2009.
"I'm ready," Svindal said. "Last year I made the overall exciting and I want to be a part of that excitement again. If it's Ted or whoever I want to make it hard for them, too. I for sure want to win it."
Another overall contender could be Alexis Pinturault, the Frenchman who was sixth overall last season with three victories in three different disciplines: Slalom, super-combined and giant slalom.
The only racers to win in GS last season besides Ligety were Hirscher in Val d'Isere, France, and Pinturault in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
After Soelden, the World Cup goes to Levi, Finland, for slaloms on Nov. 16-17, followed by stops in the United States and Canada before the traditional races in Europe.
The Sochi Games run from Feb. 7-23.
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