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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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Ted Ligety questions cancellation of World Cup race

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Can’t blame Ted Ligety for eagerly wanting to race the Alpine skiing season opener after overcoming two years’ worth of injuries to return to the World Cup circuit.

Ligety did not agree with canceling the giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, more than three hours before the scheduled start partially, based on a foreboding forecast. He aired frustration in a series of tweets.

The International Ski Federation (FIS) called off the race before 7 a.m. local time, citing 75 mph wind gusts and a forecast for worsening conditions later in the day. The first run was scheduled for 10 a.m. FIS later said that by midday the entire area had to be evacuated due to a storm.

“Seems odd to have a race cancelled at 645am in Austria when their biggest star is temporarily out,” Ligety tweeted at the FIS Alpine account early in the morning and in a separate tweet to his 88,000 followers.

Austria’s biggest star is six-time reigning World Cup overall champion Marcel Hirscher, who is sidelined indefinitely due to a broken left ankle suffered Aug. 17.

Before Ligety’s series of injuries, he battled Hirscher for giant slalom titles. The last two seasons, Hirscher has been largely unrivaled in the discipline.

Soelden, the traditional season opener, is never rescheduled, so the cancellation means Hirscher could return before missing any giant slaloms. The next GS is Dec. 3.

The World Cup giant slalom season title — which Ligety has won five times and Hirscher four — goes to the man who accumulates the most points from the nine scheduled World Cup races through March. With the Soelden cancellation, there will be eight.

Ligety just missed a big chance to get a leg up on Hirscher.

“It may be horrible weather up there, but when the president of the OSV [Austrian ski federation] is telling people it will be cancelled days in advance it smells fishy,” Ligety’s Twitter account continued. “I wanted the opportunity to try to race. + they don’t make this race up. Already less GS’s then SL&DH [slaloms and downhills scheduled this season]. A forecast is only a forecast not 100.”

Hirscher laughed at Ligety’s comment and agreed with the decision to cancel the race, according to Austrian media.

“A race wouldn’t have been possible today,” the Austrian federation posted on Facebook about an hour after Ligety’s initial tweet.

Austrian ski officials also reportedly dismissed Ligety’s tweets.

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Men’s Alpine skiing season storylines

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Three storylines for the Olympic men’s Alpine skiing season ahead of Sunday’s World Cup opener in Soelden, Austria …

1. Marcel Hirscher’s comeback

The Austrian had been on such a roll — a record six straight World Cup overall titles — that he looked like a contender for four gold medals in PyeongChang (slalom, giant slalom, super combined and team event).

Then, on Aug. 17, Hirscher broke his left ankle in training (video here). It’s Hirscher’s first major injury since he became the world’s best skier in 2012, and it comes less than six months before what should be the last Olympics of his prime.

He’s likely out until December, missing the opening technical races of the season in Soelden and Levi, Finland, on Nov. 12. Hirscher has been so strong that he would have won the overall title the last two seasons if one excludes his points from Soelden and Levi.

So a seventh straight overall title is still possible, but it just got more difficult. Combine that with the pressure on Hirscher this season to deliver his first Olympic gold medal come February. It may well be a legacy-defining season for him.

“The only thing I can do next season is [lose],” Hirscher said in March, via NBC Olympic research. “Because if I’m finishing second, in the Austrian press, it would be a disaster.”

2. The men out to dethrone Hirscher

If there is a new overall champion this year, it could be any type of racer.

In the last two seasons, three very different skiers made up Nos. 2-4 in the final standings, within an average of fewer than 100 points of each other — France’s Alexis Pinturault and Norwegians Kjetil Jansrud and Henrik Kristoffersen.

Come February, they will be vying for medals in different Olympic events, but until then all chase the World Cup overall.

Pinturault fits the mold the best. He’s 26, a prime age, and an all-around racer capable of winning giant slaloms and combineds while making the top 10 in slalom and super-G. He won four races last season, breaking Jean-Claude Killy‘s record for World Cup victories by a Frenchman.

Jansrud and Kristoffersen are opposites. Jansrud, 32, has succeeded the injury-plagued Aksel Lund Svindal as Norway’s downhill king. Kristoffersen, 23, emerged as Hirscher’s biggest slalom rival in this Olympic cycle.

If Pinturault is strong across the board, it’s unlikely that Jansrud and Kristoffersen can rack up enough points in speed and technical events, respectively, to challenge him.

3. State of the United States

The Americans are at risk of leaving the Winter Games without a men’s Alpine medal for the first time since 1998.

In 2016, the U.S. men went a calendar year without a World Cup win in any discipline for the first time since 1999. (Travis Ganong broke that skid in January, but on the same day that three-time Olympian Steven Nyman suffered a season-ending crash.)

Olympic giant slalom champion Ted Ligety hasn’t won in two years, his last two seasons cut short by myriad injuries.

The next three months will be key. Ligety will try to re-establish himself as Mr. GS, beginning Sunday in Soelden.

Nyman, the top American downhiller since Sochi, suffered a complete tear to his MCL and PCL and a partial tear to his ACL on Jan. 27. At 35, he’s not much older than the top European speed racers. It’s not out of the question that, once he returns to the World Cup circuit, he can join the Olympic medal conversation.

Ganong, 29, went more than one year between top-five finishes on the World Cup before winning that downhill on Jan. 27.

He has excelled enough on the big stage — fifth in his Olympic debut in the Sochi downhill and downhill silver at the 2015 Worlds — to contend in PyeongChang even if he doesn’t impress in the lead-up races.

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