KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – First, in a race everybody expected him to win, Ted Ligety shined in the brightest of spotlights, winning gold in the giant slalom.
Then, Saturday night in a race nobody expected him to win, Ligety emerged from the first run of slalom with a surprising sixth-fastest time, within range of another medal.
But ultimately, Ligety was one of 12 of the top 30 in the second run who failed to negotiate his way through the gates on wet, slushy snow and on an unusually tricky course set by Croatian coach Ante Kostelic – the father of one of the competitors, Ivica Kostelic.
Ligety criticized Kostelic's course-set after his DNF (did not finish).
Related Story: Ted Ligety captures gold medal in giant slalom
"The snow's just really bad, and Ante set a really difficult, typical Ante course," Ligety said. "It is borderline unsportsmanlike to set that kind of a course on this kind of hill. But that's how it goes. Everybody had to ski it. Not all the best guys had a chance to make it down, unfortunately."
Ligety had little invested in this race, though. His Games were a triumph based on his victory in the giant slalom, when he won as the heavy favorite, backing up his two world championships and four World Cup season titles in that event.
"I wasn't one of the medal favorites in this race, so it's not too frustrating for me," he said.
The slalom was won by Austria's 34-year-old Mario Matt, who surpassed former racer Kjetil Andre Aamodt in becoming the oldest alpine skier to win an Olympic gold medal. Earlier in these games, U.S. skier Bode Miller, at 36, won a bronze medal and became the oldest skier to win an Olympic medal.
The second-run course was so tactically demanding that Matt said he ran out of time during pre-race inspection and didn't have time to look at the last third.
Related Story: Ted Ligety wants Olympic gold to cap giant slalom dominance
"It was extremely difficult, with so many people failing to finish," he said.
But the fact that so many skiers failed to finish -- including two of the favorites, France's Alexis Pinturault and Germany's Felix Neureuther – didn't diminish Matt's joy.
Matt had won two world championships and 15 World Cup races but no Olympic medals. This was likely his last chance.
"A massive goal has come through for me today," he said.
Another Austrian, pre-race favorite Marcel Hirscher, 24, the reigning World Cup overall champion, won the silver medal after posting the second-fastest second run.
"I could see that there was a big potential for mistakes," Hirscher said. "For some people it worked out and others it didn't."
Norway's Henrik Kristoffersen, 19, took the bronze medal and became the youngest man to win an Olympic alpine skiing medal.
The 1-2 finish by Austria gave the ski-crazy country a redemptive total of nine medals in alpine skiing, more than any other country. Four years ago, in Vancouver, Austria won four – none by the men.
The U.S. ski team finishes the Sochi Olympics with five medals, tying its second-best performance. The U.S. team also won five in Sarajevo in 1984. The all-time high for the U.S. team was eight medals in Vancouver in 2010.
"It was a rough start, but it was great," said U.S. alpine director Patrick Riml, referring to the fact the U.S. team had just one medal – Julia Mancuso's bronze – through the first five events.
Then, in the men's super-G, Andrew Weibrecht took a shocking silver and Bode Miller won bronze. Then Ligety in the giant slalom and Mikaela Shiffrin in the slalom, both heavy favorites, came through and delivered gold medals.
"What our athletes were able to deliver was impressive," Riml said. "I'm very proud of the athletes. I'm very proud of the staff. Everybody stayed calm and did their jobs. We got the athletes ready for race day. It's awesome. I'm very, very pleased. To win a medal is not that easy."