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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