Before today, Marcel Hirscher had never won Olympic gold. Somehow.
The 28-year-old Austrian has won the men’s overall title each of the last six seasons. He’s the first athlete to ever do so. (Only Austrian legend Annemarie Moser-Pröll also won six, but those wins weren’t consecutive). He’s on track to win his seventh straight this year. The overall title doesn’t get nearly as much U.S. media coverage as, say, the Olympics, but for ski racing aficionados, it’s generally considered a better indicator of skill: It’s given to the skier who builds up the most points, calculated by race finishes, over an entire season. Ski racing legend Franz Klammer said of Hirscher, “He is faster, steadier and fitter than all others.”
Hirscher is also a great big-event skier. In the World Championships, the other big event on the alpine racing calendar, he’s been as almost weirdly, mathematically consistent as he is in the overall standings. He won two golds and one silver at each of the last three World Championships (though in different events; he’s won two golds in slalom, a gold and two silvers in GS, one silver and one gold in combined, and two golds in the team events, which were parallel slaloms).
But until today, he hadn’t had the same luck with the Olympics. In 2010, he just missed the podium, coming in fourth in GS, fifth in slalom. He fared better at Sochi: In 40-degree temperatures that made the snow wet and sloppy, with five of the top guys DNFing, Hirscher kept his cool and took silver, 0.28 seconds off the time of his teammate Mario Matt. Again, he just missed the GS podium, coming in fourth. But no golds.
The Austrian was a favorite for today’s event: The combined, which awkwardly (and excitingly) marries a downhill run with a slalom. But even he wasn’t so sure he’d make it to the second run, never mind be on the podium. You need to finish in the top 30 in downhill to continue onto the slalom leg. And with their shorter turns, quick-twitch muscles firing and slower speeds, Hirscher’s specialties, slalom and GS, are practically different sports from downhill. Plus, as a tech skier, he not only doesn’t race downhill—he doesn’t waste his time training downhill, either.
So when he traded his 165cm skis for 218s, which must have felt like clown shoes, for last week’s downhill test runs, it’s no surprise that he came “so, so far away from the top 30”, as he put it. Even Saturday’s test still put him more than 3.5 seconds off the pace, in 49th. He told reporters he had “no expectations” for a medal.
But then something shifted. For one, luck: The crazy winds that have been wreaking havoc with schedulers this week also meant that, for safety’s sake, the downhill had to be shortened. At about a 1:15 finishing time, that abbreviated length put it closer to the kind of race length Hirscher’s used to.
Not, of course, that this alone explains Hirscher’s performance. The guy just knows how to rev it up a notch. On his downhill run, he looked completely solid, remarkably confident and, well, like a full-time downhiller. He placed a remarkable 12th.
That gave him a serious fighting chance. He was less than 1.5 seconds off the leading downhiller, something everyone knew he’d be more than able to make up over a non-tech skier in the slalom. Adding to Hirscher’s luck, this was a combined that seemed even more suited to a slalom specialist than others. Sometimes, the slalom course set in a combined is relatively easy, giving those downhillers who never turn this much, this quickly, a real chance. Not today. The course was steep and icy, with tight-set turns all the way down. The downhillers struggled. Seventeen guys, including downhill legends Matthias Mayer, Dominik Paris, and Peter Fill, didn’t manage to finish the course at all.
But, of course, there were other slalom stars who could take advantage of the same thing—and did. French skier Victor Muffat-Jeandet had an especially remarkable run, putting him as the early leader.
Then came Hirscher. Relaxed and in control the whole way down, not even the fact that the wind picked up speed, potentially buffeting him more than the other racers, broke his focus. Even with that wind, he edged the Frenchman by a hair: 0.01 seconds in the slalom. Enough to win gold, and to push Muffat-Jeandet into bronze for his two times combined. (Frenchman Alexis Pinturault took silver).
Hirscher had said before that even if he didn’t medal at all this Olympics, he wouldn’t be broken-hearted. In what will probably come as a surprise to people who only tune into ski racing at the Olympics, he had been blunt about the fact that this isn’t a be-all-or-end-all moment. (Remember that point up top about many alpine skiers seeing the overall as a bigger prize than an Olympic medal?). “It would be an amazing success, but not a life-changing or career-changing success,” Hirscher had told reporters. “But it would be really nice to have.”
But now that he’s clinched his first Olympic medal, and in potentially his weakest event, he sounds relieved. If nothing else that now, maybe, reporters will stop asking him the same thing again and again.
“I’m super-happy because now this stupid question is gone away. If I’m thinking that my career is perfect without a gold medal, now this question is zzzt, deleted.”
What’s better than perfect? Looks like Hirscher is showing us. Expect that to continue with the GS and slalom.