Marcel Hirscher

AP

Marcel Hirscher: World Cup title over Olympic gold

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) — Think a gold medal is the end-all and be-all for Winter Games athletes?

Well, meet Marcel Hirscher, who can reasonably stake a claim as the very best Alpine ski racer without an Olympic gold to his name.

Hirscher has accomplished just about everything else there is to accomplish in his sport.

Six crystal globes that signify World Cup overall season titles — all in a row, too, and No. 7 is in his sights at the moment. Fifty-two World Cup race wins. Four world championships.

Still, the question the 28-year-old Austrian gets asked over and over these days, with the first race of the PyeongChang Games scheduled for a month from Thursday, is this: Does Hirscher need an Olympic gold medal to validate all of his success?

It truly is the only thing missing from his impressive portfolio.

He scoffs at the implication.

“It won’t change my life,” Hirscher said in a recent interview. “Because if I had a choice between winning another globe or an Olympic gold medal, it is easy for me.”

In other words: The globe would be his choice.

And not much to debate, either, because he, like many other ski racers, considers that emblematic of consistent excellence, sustained over the course of months, through an entire season and through various types of races and mountains.

An Olympic gold, the thinking goes, represents merely success in one event, on one day, and subject to the vagaries of such things as the weather and a particular course setting.

Indeed, Hirscher defined it as “an American mindset” that demands that he needs an Olympic gold to cement his status.

“For me, personally,” he said, “and for the European mindset, no.”

He is certain that his place in the pantheon of skiing greats is already secured, no matter what happens next month in South Korea.

Ask him who his biggest rival is these days, and Hirscher offers a quick answer.

“Myself,” he said.

In the past, Hirscher has come quite close to climbing atop the top step of an Olympic podium.

He earned a silver in the slalom four years ago at the Sochi Games, finishing as the runner-up to countryman Mario Matt.

That is Hirscher’s lone medal, though: He was fourth in the giant slalom in 2014.

At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Hirscher was fourth in the GS and fifth in the slalom.

He didn’t get in his usual block of training to start the season after breaking his left ankle in August when he straddled a slalom gate during practice.

He’s quickly rounded back into form, with seven victories and another trio of top-five finishes. He leads the overall World Cup standings by more than 150 points over Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway.

“I’m just skiing, skiing, skiing, skiing, since I’m able to ski again,” Hirscher said. “More skiing than usual.”

His biggest rivals aren’t all that surprised by his quick return to the top of the sport, even if he did miss a big chunk of training time.

“He always downplays things and wins,” U.S. Olympic champion Ted Ligety said. “You have to take what he says with a grain of salt.”

Hirscher’s the racer whom everyone else studies. He watches his own runs over and over again, looking for ways he can improve. And he studies other racers, too.

“Every good athlete is helping me to improve my skiing,” Hirscher said. “I can find, in every athlete, one good turn or two good turns. I can analyze why those turns were faster than other turns. And sometimes you can find out why athletes are better than other ones.”

On the course, Hirscher is so composed that nothing seems to distract him — not even a falling drone.

During a race in Italy in December 2015, a drone carrying a TV camera crashed to the snow just behind Hirscher as he sped down the mountain.

“He’s mentally strong,” Kristoffersen said.

There was a time when being mentioned in the same sentence as Austrian greats such as Franz Klammer (1976 Olympic downhill gold) or Hermann Maier (1998 super-G and giant slalom golds) used to make Hirscher a bit uncomfortable.

But it’s become part of the territory for someone who wins so often.

A few years ago, Hirscher and Maier filmed a commercial in which they raced around a track in motorized living room chairs.

The race ended in a draw.

Whatever comparisons are made nowadays — and might be made after the PyeongChang Olympics — Hirscher is OK with them. And feels fine about his standing.

“It took years to accept that this is happening,” Hirscher said. “Now I say, ‘OK, it is part of my life,’ and so I’m fine with it.”

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Marcel Hirscher is fourth male Alpine skier to win 50 World Cups

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Austrian ski superstar Marcel Hirscher became the fourth man to reach 50 career World Cup wins, taking a slalom in Zagreb, Croatia, on Thursday.

The 28-year-old Hirscher won his fifth race of the season, a strong recovery from breaking his left ankle in August slalom training.

He edged countryman Michael Matt by .05 combining times from two runs. Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen was third. The top American was Mark Engel in 24th.

The World Cup men’s career wins list:

Ingemark Stenmark (SWE) — 86
Hermann Maier (AUT) — 54
Alberto Tomba (ITA) — 50
Marcel Hirscher (AUT) — 50

“Alberto Tomba is a name where you think, oh my God, he is a real living ski legend,” Hirscher said.

Hirscher has now won at least five races in seven straight seasons. He already holds the record of six straight World Cup overall titles.

He leads this season’s standings, eyeing a seventh straight, through 17 of 37 races.

If Hirscher stays on his recent pace, he would pass Stenmark’s 86 wins in 2022 or 2023.

But Hirscher has always cautioned that he could retire after any season, even without an Olympic gold medal.

Hirscher was fourth and fifth in two races at Vancouver 2010 and was upset for slalom gold in Sochi by countryman Mario Matt, the older brother of Michael.

Hirscher grabbed two golds and one silver at each of the last three world championships.

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Hirscher storms back to win World Cup GS, Ligety takes 7th (video)

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) — Lounging on the couch with his broken left ankle in a cast, Marcel Hirscher felt something he hadn’t in a long time — no pressure.

Now that he’s back on the slopes with his ankle mended and returning to his winning ways, that familiar tension has returned.

The six-time overall World Cup champion can’t escape the one glaring omission from his impressive resume: an Olympic gold.

He insisted he doesn’t give it a second thought heading to PyeongChang. Still, all eyes will be on him constantly between now and February.

Especially after a performance like Sunday’s. The Austrian standout stormed back from a first-run deficit to win a World Cup giant slalom race on an afternoon when rival Ted Ligety struggled.

Hirscher finished in a combined time of 2 minutes, 37.30 seconds to show he’s getting back up to speed after breaking his ankle in a training accident in August. Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway was second, 0.88 seconds back, and first-run leader Stefan Luitz of Germany took third.

“Today I thought: ‘OK, let’s go for it. Let’s give it a try. Let’s see what’s possible,’” Hirscher said. “So unexpected was never a win before.”

Sitting next to him, Kristoffersen couldn’t help but chime in.

“I’m not surprised,” Kristoffersen said.

“Come on, Henrik,” Hirscher responded.

It was Hirscher’s 23rd World Cup giant slalom win, which ties him for third most among men with Switzerland’s Michael von Gruenigen. That leaves him trailing only Ingemar Stenmark (46) and Ligety (24) in the discipline.

“Marcel’s a great athlete,” Kristoffersen said. “He’s making sure that everything is lined up as good as possible for himself. That’s one of the reasons he has won six overall globes in a row. Of course, he’s mentally strong.”

These days, he’s getting physically strong, too. He hardly feels any discomfort in that ankle, especially on race day.

“If you’re so pumped, with this high adrenaline, it doesn’t hurt,” said Hirscher, who was 17th in a slalom in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 12. “It is completely free of pain. I didn’t think about it. Maybe during training sometimes I think about it or feel a little pain. But it is not worth talking about it.”

Hirscher’s not the only top GS racer on the mend. Ligety showed signs of returning to form following surgery to fix herniated disks in January. He was second after the first pass through the course, but he made several small mistakes on his final run to slip to seventh.

“I’m happy with how I’ve been skiing and how my body feels. That’s good,” Ligety said. “But Beaver Creek has been a really good hill for me. I expected a lot more.”

As a whole, the Americans turned in a lackluster performance on their home course. In three races, the top finish was by Ligety. Tommy Ford had a career-best 10th-place World Cup finish Sunday.

“That was much better skiing,” Ford said. “It was cool to do some good arcs.”

Starting third-to-last in the final run, Hirscher powered his way down the course to knock Kristoffersen from the top spot. Ligety couldn’t catch him and neither could Luitz, who picked up his fifth World Cup podium finish.

Luitz was impressed with Hirscher.

“He’s unbelievable. He was injured and trained like two weeks, maybe less, and just amazing how he came back,” Luitz said. “He’s the best skier in the world.”

Hence, the pressure that only figures to escalate as the Olympics near.

“The first day I was able to walk without the cast and no crutches, the pressure began to pop up again,” Hirscher said. “But especially after today, it is completely the same (pressure).

“The last month was really hard. Just skiing, skiing, skiing, as many runs as possible, trying to gain the speed. … I improved myself through every turn.”

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