Ted Ligety‘s life has changed quite a bit since the first time he skied at the Olympics.
That was in Turin, Italy in 2006. He was 21 years old at the time, and was a relative newcomer to the field, in his first season of senior competitive skiing. He was just happy to be at the Olympics at all, and didn’t really have his sights yet set on any medal, let alone a gold.
But sometimes, no expectations can have a big payoff: He won a gold medal, which made him the first American man to do so in the sport of alpine skiing in 12 years. The last man to win gold had been Tommy Moe, Ligety’s role model and the skier who inspired him to pursue his own Olympic dream.
Since Turin, he’s competed in Vancouver and Sochi. In 2010, he was a favorite coming in following his standout performance in Turin and four subsequent strong years on the slopes. But he fell short, landing in ninth place in the giant slalom race and fifth in the super combined. But in 2014, he was back on top in Sochi, winning gold in the giant slalom.
Now, Ligety is at his fourth Olympics with hopes to replicate the golden touch he had in 2006 and 2014. And doing so, he’s in an entirely different stage in life: He’s long moved out of his parents’ house, and is a new dad to his son Jax.
“ definitely be a world different from my first Olympics,” Ligety, who has partnered with Nabisco ahead of the 2018 games, tells PEOPLE. “I was just a 21-year-old still living with my parents and basically a newbie on the world team scene. Now I’m traveling with my wife and 7-month-old son.”
Jax and Ligety’s wife, Mia Pascoe, are in PyeongChang to watch dad take on the men’s combined and the giant slalom competitions. “It’ll be really cool to share this with them,” he says of bringing his family along for the ride.
And what a ride it’s been so far. Ligety is just over a year out from back surgery, and was forced to skip the World Cup and World Championship races in 2017 due to his recovery. But he says that not competing in PyeongChang didn’t occur to him — trying for a place on the mountain in South Korea felt like an inevitability, even with the medical hurdle, which he says helped fuel his energies towards prepping for the Olympics.
“It never crossed my mind that I wasn’t going to be able to compete,” he says. “Injury is always tough, and being on the sidelines is tough. watching from your couch at home while you’re doing rehab is a good motivator.”
Another motivator? His past experiences at the game, which range from the expected to the unexpected, the victorious to the disappointing. He’s been a favorite, he’s been an underdog, he’s won, he’s lost. In Vancouver, he went in expected to medal and walked away with none. In Sochi, he went in as the “overwhelming favorite” with three World Championships gold medals collected in the year before the games, and went onto win — an achievement he says was “super satisfying.”
That variety, he says, helps put his Olympic experience in perspective.
“My first Olympics I won a gold medal,” he says. “Being in awe and being a rookie in the situation helped in some ways, but in others I think it’s good now that I’ve been on the whole spectrum. From being a nobody to being a favorite and not having a medal to then being a favorite and having one.”
Despite the fact that he has two gold medals to his name, he says he’s feeling more like an underdog this year, following his “two successive years of injuries” and recovery-heavy 2017. He says: “It’s the first year in a long time that I actually feel healthy.”
Favorite or not, when he heads down the mountain in PyeongChang on Monday and Tuesday, he’ll be in the same mindset he’s learned to settle into throughout his Olympic past: Remember, at the end of the day, approach it the same way you would any other race.
“You don’t want to belittle the Olympics and try to create it as something totally different, but once you are actually in the start gate, it’s all about skiing like you normally would,” Ligety says. “Once you are actually in the fences skiing, just focus on the skiing. That’s all that really matters.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.