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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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Justin Morneau nixes Olympic baseball qualifying return

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Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP with the Minnesota Twins, was taken off Canada’s Olympic baseball qualifying roster before he would have played his first competitive game in more than two years.

Morneau, 38, experienced an unspecified setback in training and was replaced on Canada’s roster for next month’s Premier12. The global tournament marks the first opportunity for many world baseball powers to qualify for the sport’s return to the Olympics.

Morneau never played in the Olympics before baseball was cut from the Games after 2008; active MLB players have never competed in the Games. But he was on Canada’s roster at all four World Baseball Classics from 2006 through 2017.

At November’s Premier12, the top nation from North and South America will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan and Israel are already qualified. Those that do not qualify will get another chance next year.

Morneau could become the second Major League Baseball MVP to play Olympic baseball as a medal sport. The other was Jason Giambi, who made the U.S. team in 1992, the same summer he was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics.

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MORE: Joe Girardi replaced as U.S. baseball manager by World Series champion

Kolohe Andino is first U.S. Olympic surfing qualifier; Kelly Slater faces last chance

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Kolohe Andino is the first American to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut, which leaves one spot left for 47-year-old Kelly Slater to chase at the final contest of the season.

Andino, a 25-year-old Californian whose first name means “rascal” in Hawaiian, clinched his place in Tokyo on Friday at the penultimate stop on the World Surf League Championship Tour in Portugal. He is ranked fifth in the world, trailing a trio of Brazilians.

One more American man will join Andino on the Olympic team. It will be one of Slater, the 11-time world champion, John John Florence, the 2016 and 2017 World champion, and rising 22-year-old Hawaiian Seth Moniz.

Slater was handed a golden opportunity to qualify when Florence announced in early July that he tore an ACL for the second time in 13 months. Florence had won two of the first five events this season.

Slater has been chasing the sidelined Florence in the standings ever since. But it has not been easy.

Slater hasn’t made the quarterfinals in any of his last seven contests going into December’s finale — the prestigious Billabong Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu.

“Ninth place, to me, used to be a pretty awful result. I’m used to at least a quarterfinal on for most of my career,” he said in July, noting a back injury. “I’m not horrified by my results, but I’m also not surprised. Maybe other people are because everyone focuses on my age and that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m going to all of a sudden forget how to do this thing, you know?”

Slater, who won the Pipe Masters seven times between 1992 and 2013, must reach the quarterfinals at this year’s event to have any chance of passing Florence to qualify for the Olympics.

Complicating matters: Florence said in August it was his “goal to get better for Pipeline in case I have to come back and compete and gain points,” according to ESPN.com. If Florence does return for the December contest, and makes the quarterfinals, Slater could only pass him with a victory.

Moniz goes into the finale ranked one spot behind Slater, meaning he, too, can grab that second and final Olympic spot with a win or a runner-up.

Slater, who turns 48 on Feb. 11, would be the oldest U.S. Summer Olympic rookie competitor in a sport other than equestrian, sailing or shooting (or art competitions!) in the last 100 years, supplanting Martina Navratilova, according to the OlyMADMen.

MORE: Top U.S. surfer has links to Egg McMuffin, Guinness World Record holder

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