ST. MORITZ, Switzerland — If you wanted to script the most fitting, the most unnerving-yet-uplifting race to cap off the two-week World Alpine Ski Championships, you couldn’t have done better than today’s men’s slalom.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The piste was perfect. For both runs, the course (which can sometimes get crummy with ruts after a few racers, making it tougher for later runs) held up nicely. Everything that happened on the hill today came down to the racers themselves.
And that was pretty emotional to watch. As German skier Felix Neureuther put it after the race: “It’s crazy how close happiness, or sadness, are together.”
The first run in the morning was exciting enough. One of the biggest surprises was a disappointment: Frecnchman Alexis Pinturault, a frequent top-10 finisher in slalom on the World Cup circuit, slid out of the course and DNF’ed.
A happier surprise was for Dave Ryding, the 30-year-old representing Great Britain. He nabbed his first podium this January at the slalom in Kitzbühl when he came in second, but generally, it’s not a bad day for him when he lands in the single digits. This morning, though, he put down a fast, solid run that placed him in fourth.
Other than that, the lineup looked like the answer to an old joke about what’s red and white all over; after the first run, the top three spots were filled by Austrians. And the all-but-unstoppable Marcel Hirscher was in first.
Hirscher has already achieved enough to put him down as one of the best racers in history. Among other things, he’s now won the overall World Cup title five times, a first for any male skier. In January at Adelboden, his second-place in giant slalom was his 100th podium out of 191 races — not exactly a bad average. (That’s 52.35 percent, if you’re counting).
But even for the guy who has it all (almost), a gold this afternoon would have been particularly sweet. Hirscher had already nabbed silver in the combined event. He followed it up with a gold medal two days ago in the giant slalom, which was his fifth gold at the World Ski Championships (which are a different event from the World Cup races, and run just once every two years). It was his first gold in GS, an event in which he’d clinched silver in 2013 and 2015. If he carried a margin of victory in slalom through the second run, it would be his first time winning two events in a single championships. And the slalom/giant slalom double-win would be the first since Alberto Tomba’s 1996 showing.
“After this very emotional GS gold medal where I waited for a pretty long time — I mean, twice [I was in] second position in the World Championships behind Ted Ligety in Schladming and Beaver Creek — it was super easy for me mentally to go into this race,” Hirscher said this afternoon. “The only thing that wouldn’t be funny is skiing slow. So I decided to put everything into these two runs.”
Hirscher wasn’t the only one putting everything on the line in the second run of the slalom, though. And that’s where some of the most crushing disappointments — not only of this race, but of the entire Championships — came in.
There was the Swiss skier Daniel Yule, who had placed 11th after the first run. He kicked out of the start and then, just a couple of turns down, got late on a gate and slid out of the course where he stopped for a moment, stunned, like all racers are when they suddenly flub and are piecing together what on earth just happened. Just two racers later was the next Swiss racer, Ramon Zenhaeusern, who had placed ninth. He made it further down... and then he, too, slid out. The home crowd, which launched each racer’s run with cheers, cowbells and flag-waving, was beside itself.
The favorite of the race, other than Hirscher, was Henrik Kristoffersen: a Norwegian dynamo who has won no fewer than five of the last seven slalom races on the World Cup circuit. His first run was solid, but not as good as he can usually manage, putting him in sixth. His second run, too, wasn’t quite enough: in the end, it was able to tick him up only a couple of notches to fourth place For fans, this was emotional in a different way: It was the third time he was just edged off the podium in the championships, after coming in fourth in this week’s G.S. and fourth in the 2015 slalom at Vail.
But most heartbreaking story of all belonged to Mattias Hargin, the 31-year-old Swede. He had been married to his wife, former ski racer turned Red Bull-sponsored free-skier and uber-talented daredevil Matilda Rapaport, for only three months when she died in an avalanche while filming in Chile in 2016. A few weeks later, he did something nearly inconceivable: He returned to training— both as a way to continue fighting for their shared passion for skiing, and, as he said, to “focus his attention and energy.”
Hargin has had some good results this year, but none that let him climb a podium. Today could have changed that. He had a solid first run that put him in fifth place, just 0.57 seconds behind Hirscher.
His second run, though, was searing. As he came down, his form was nearly perfect, skis carving lightning-quick from one gate to the next as he attacked each turn. At the third split — the last one before the finish — he was about three-tenths of a second ahead. The crowd went wild. And it was there, just a handful of gates before the finish line, that he made a mistake and got thrown out of the course.
When Hargin skied down the last few yards left of the slope, it wasn’t in the way that he’d — or his many fans and friends here at St. Moritz — had hoped. To make matters worse, when the race had finally ended, it turned out that his shot at a medal hadn’t been imaginary. His third-split time would have won him silver. It would have been his first-ever podium at a world championship.
But even as they cheered Hargin through the finish area, there wasn’t time for the crowd to keep thinking about what could have been, because four more racers were still up. Ryding, who followed up his fantastic first run with a disappointing second, putting him in 11th overall. Michael Matt, the first of the three Austrians, also lost his steam, coming in eighth overall.
Those losses were someone else’s gain. And that someone else had also been on an emotional ride this year. Thirty-one-year-old German Felix Neureuther usually does well in championships — he came in second in slalom in Schladming in 2013 and third at Vail in 2015 — but he’s been battling both back and knee injuries. After a lackluster G.S. in which he looked stiff and in pain, his slalom was solid: His first run put him in tenth place. But it still seemed unlikely that could be enough for him to get onto the podium. Until, that is, the last few racers came down and, one after another, didn’t manage to chip into the top.
At the end of the day, Hirscher won his gold — and while he may have gone into this race without pressure or expectations, the look on his face in the finish showed that, even so, he was very, very glad to be here.
Manuel Feller, another of the top Austrians, grabbed second. And third was Neureuther, whose expression of pure elation may have said the most of all.
“A couple of hundredths lower and everything is shit, and now everything is fine,” Neureuther said. When watching the other racers come down,“I always say ‘Ah, this won’t be enough, it won’t be enough, it won’t be enough for sure.’ And then it was enough. So I was very, very happy.”
Happy, sad, triumphant, disappointing. Today wasn’t just a race that will go down in alpine history. It was also the perfect race to close out the Championships, because I’m not sure anyone here has the emotional reserves to handle anything more for a while.