Two months before it began, Frenchman Alexis Pinturault knew this past Alpine skiing World Cup season would be like no other in his 10-year career.
Last August, he received a message from Austrian rival Marcel Hirscher‘s team. Hirscher, the record eight-time World Cup overall champion, among the greatest all-time ski racers, was going to announce his retirement.
They wanted Pinturault, who four times finished second or third behind Hirscher in the overall standings, to be one of the skiers to film a message for Hirscher’s live-streamed farewell announcement.
Pinturault was shocked that Hirscher, who at last earned elusive Olympic gold medals in 2018, was walking away at age 30.
Like many who follow the sport, Pinturault knew Hirscher teased retirement for years, saying at the end of seasons that he didn’t know if he would return the following autumn. But Hirscher, who carved snow while carrying the immense weight of Austria’s biggest star in its national sport, had always showed up again.
“That’s the reason why I didn’t really believe it at the beginning [of 2019], when he started to say, yeah, I’m not sure I will continue,” Pinturault said this week by phone from Courchevel. “I didn’t really want to accept it because, as I said, I never expect it. And also, I think, I really like my rivalry with Marcel because he was a really strong opponent, and he was bringing many good things for the sport. But also for me, because to push always the limit is something really valuable also.”
In Hirscher’s exit interview, he was asked to predict a successor as the new king of the sport. He noted Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway and Pinturault, the latter finishing runner-up to Hirscher the previous season.
Pinturault acknowledged the new expectations going into the World Cup opener in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. He won the Rettenbach glacier giant slalom by .54 of a second. Kristoffersen was 18th. The favorite for the biggest annual prize in Alpine skiing became clear.
“It’s not so easy for us that Marcel isn’t there anymore,” Pinturault said that day, according to The Associated Press. “We have a lot of pressure, more than before. Usually all the pressure was on Marcel. But this is a wonderful start for me.”
Pinturault won five more times that winter. He led the overall standings by a slim 26 points going into the last eight races of the season in March. Then the World Cup Finals in Italy were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving a downhill and super-G in Norway and a giant slalom and slalom in Slovenia.
Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde took second in the downhill, as part of an ascendant campaign, to overtake Pinturault by 54 points. Kilde, whose best previous overall finish was seventh, was the latest in his nation’s line of Attacking Vikings, known for prowess in the speed events of downhill and super-G.
Pinturault, better in giant slalom and slalom, remained confident. The last super-G was canceled due to poor weather. He could still outscore Kilde in the giant slalom and slalom in Slovenia to snatch the title.
“Everything was still possible,” said Pinturault, bidding to become the first French man or woman to claim the overall since Luc Alphand in 1997.
Then that Thursday, two days before the season-ending races in Slovenia, Pinturault returned from morning training. He received a text message from the International Ski Federation. The races in Slovenia were canceled due to coronavirus concerns. The season was over. Kilde was overall champion.
“It was, I would say, really big disappointment, but also something I was thinking about and expecting a little bit,” Pinturault said. Kilde texted the Frenchman, appreciating their tight title battle through the winter. Pinturault replied with his own well wishes.
“He was the most — how do you say — regular athlete the whole winter,” Pinturault said of Kilde, who had one victory all season but finished in the top 10 a total of 22 times (to Pinturault’s 17). “He didn’t get a lot of victories, but he was always there.”
Pinturault, whose Norwegian mother, Hege, taught him to ski (first on skis at age 2), retreated to France. He had grown up in the ski resort of Annecy, where his dad operated the luxury Hotel Annapurna.
The nation went on containment on March 17, a week after the Slovenian races were canceled.
Pinturault celebrated his 29th birthday with family on March 20. Around that time, older sister Sandra and their dad began feeling sick. Then Pinturault and his other sibling, younger brother Cedric, started to feel symptoms: headaches (“not that bad”) and a fever. Then the loss of taste and smell.
“This stays for 10 days at least,” Pinturault said. “Those 10 days were very special because you don’t really know when it will come back.”
Then Pinturault’s wife since 2017, Romaine, got sick. The Pinturaults’ cases were mild enough that none needed hospitalization. Alexis didn’t get checked out until after his symptoms faded. He took an antibody test.
“I was positive in everything,” he said. “It was not big deal. I was still able to live, so walking, cooking, walking outside, playing a little bit. Of course I was ill, and I felt not that great, but it was never that bad that I had to stay in bed and sleep and hoping that it was getting better. For me, at least, it was pretty OK.”
This week, Pinturault trained at the French Alps resort of Courchevel feeling, he estimated, 90 percent. Not quite fully recovered. But still confident he would travel to Val d’Isere for more ski training before a summer break.
Pinturault chose a ski career over soccer at age 15, then debuted on the World Cup at age 17. In his first 14 races over nearly two years, he failed to finish all of them, either skiing out or not qualifying for a second run.
Then in his 15th, Pinturault placed sixth from bib 62 (podium finishers are usually among the first 30 racers). His senior career took off. He would eventually become France’s all-time World Cup wins leader, earn three Olympic medals and a 2019 World title in the combined.
The 2019-20 season was characterized by learning, Pinturault said. Then the virus. In one way, it did not hit him too hard. “Like a big cold,” he said. In another way, its affect on the end of the World Cup season, it was more difficult to handle.
“That was, for me, the hardest,” he said. “It was more about the head. You are a little bit depressed.”
Pinturault continued, noting it was not a situation he could control. He is proud of how he raced during a season where, for the first time, he was the targeted star. He feels confident of stepping up again whenever racing resumes.
“Nobody wanted to live this situation,” he said. “All I could do, I made it really good.”
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