updated 08/25/2015 AT 8:16 PM ET
•originally published 02/19/2014 AT 7:40 PM ET
Family and friends traveling with U.S. skier Ted Ligety in Sochi knew his two prior failures to reach the podium at this Winter Olympics weighed heavily. So, when he came barreling down the mountain with the gold medal-winning run in the men’s giant slalom Wednesday, the celebration was that much sweeter.
“It’s awesome,” says Ligety, 29, the three-time defending world champion and the first member of the U.S. Alpine team to win an event at these Olympics. “They’ve given me lots of support, and they were role models for sure. They taught me hard work and independence. They made ski racing about me, and they never pushed me into it.”
“It’s fun to have these guys here,” he adds.
A top place-holding finish in the first of two runs allowed Ligety to back off just slightly in his second run. “It took a little bit of weight off my shoulders,” he says. “It was nice not to have to take a 100 percent risk.”
But he still carried the huge burden of expectations after failing to medal earlier in the combined and Super G.
“This is the event that I really wanted to win the most,” he says. “I was one of the favorites coming in. Definitely a lot of pressure.”
The win – he won gold at age 21 in another event in his first Olympics in 2006, but was shut out in 2010 – not only makes him the first U.S. skier to win the giant slalom but also the first to win two golds in Olympic Alpine events.
“It’s cool to know you’re among the U.S. legends in the sport,” he says.
“To get a gold medal [in 2006] was surreal, but it doesn’t have the same meaning as this one,” he adds. “Having more ups and downs, and having a somewhat lackluster Olympics up until this point, makes this that much more meaningful.”
U.S Alpine team member Julia Mancuso, a bronze medalist in Sochi, says: “He won the first run by a second and went on to win. That’s a true champion. He’s the king of giant slalom, and it’s awesome to be in a sport where you are just killing it in an event and you go to the Olympics and perform at the very top of your game.”
Ligety is just grateful he can exhale – albeit only briefly: He’ll compete again Saturday in the slalom.
“Alpine skiing is one of the least-guaranteed sports for a favorite to get a medal,” he says. “It’s one of those sports that is really tough, mentally tough, to step up on the big days.”
Having now done so, he says, “is an awesome feeling, and a huge relief.”
With reporting by JOHNNY DODD