JEONGSEON, South Korea – Remember a few years back when LeBron James took his talents to Miami and people were, like, the guy has to win an NBA title to prove he’s one of the all-time greats?
Same when, back in the day, John Elway hadn’t yet won a Super Bowl with Denver, and the noise was all about how he had to win to cement his legacy?
In Austria, alpine ski racing is some amazing combination of the NFL, NBA, MLB and every other thing that can come to mind. As they ski down rivers of ice, the country’s ski stars turn into pop culture heroes who all but walk on water.
Among its alpine legends, and we are talking Toni Sailer, Franz Klammer, Hermann Maier and many more, the evidence would strongly suggest that Marcel Hirscher is perhaps the greatest men’s alpine skier of all time. Except – he had never won an Olympic gold medal.
In a brilliant combination of downhill and slalom skiing in the event that is now called the super-combined, Hirscher raced his way to Olympic victory in a pooled time of 2:06.52. Two French racers went 2-3, Alexis Pinturault 23-hundredths of a second behind and Victor Muffat-Jeandet 1.02 back.
The Austrians had not won the Olympic combined event since Mario Reiter took it at Nagano in 1998. No French male racer had stood on the podium in this event in since 1948, when Henri Oreiller and James Couttet went 1-3.
The American Ted Ligety, the Torino 2006 gold medalist in this event when it was called the combined (two slalom races instead of one), took fifth, 1.45 seconds back. The other Americans: Bryce Bennett 17th, Jared Goldberg 36th. Ryan Cochran-Siegle crashed out in the downhill leg.
Alpine skiing gets little run in the United States except for perhaps an every-four-years bright light on Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin, Ligety, Bode Miller (now retired) and Julia Mancuso (same). Thus most Americans have developed little appreciation for Hirscher’s dominance in a sport that depends on speed, danger and guts.
For six straight years, Hirscher has won what is called the World Cup overall title, given to the tour’s best skier. He leads this year’s points total. He has 55 career wins, second only to Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark – famously one more than Maier.
In Vancouver in 2010, Hirscher missed the medals. In Sochi in 2014, he took silver in the slalom. He said here before racing got underway, “Things are going really good, especially over the last six years. But I am missing Olympic gold. I’m here for the mission, and we will see how it works.”
At these Games, fierce winds had forced the postponement of, first, the men’s downhill and, then, the women’s giant slalom. To get Tuesday’s race in, officials started the downhill from the lower super-G start and then shortened the slalom run by 10 gates.
As a racer: what to do?
“Nothing special,” Hirscher said after the first leg and before the slalom – an expression not of overweening confidence but, instead, dead-on professionalism, the man on a mission who knew that doing enough was just right but too much, especially with the weight of a nation on him, would prove a miscalculation.
Hirscher’s first leg left him 1.32 seconds behind the first-run leader, Germany’s Thomas Dressen. There was almost no chance Dressen, all 100 kilos of him – or 220 pounds – would prove a factor in the slalom, and indeed he ended up sliding to ninth overall.
The important thing was the time: anything within two seconds after the first leg, and it was Hirscher’s to lose, as everyone knew.
A great slalom run is like watching an expert ballroom dancer go through his, or her, routine. It’s all rhythm, and grace.
The wind picked up in the middle of Hirscher’s run, the snow swirling hard and fast around his skis and boots. No matter. Here was the all-time great, all rhythm, all grace, turn, turn, turn, turn, a moment destined to live as one of the enduring images of these 2018 Olympics. In Austria, and beyond.
Confidence begets confidence, and with this victory, Hirscher has to be considered a favorite for the slalom and giant slalom yet to come.
Indeed, just moments after the race, he took to Twitter to proclaim, adding a check mark, “first part done.”
Before Tuesday, in the history of alpine ski racing, only four men had claimed both a world championship victory and Olympic gold in a men’s combination event: Miller, Ligety and two Norwegian standouts, Lasse Kjus and Kjetil Andre Aamodt.
Hirscher, at a post-race news conference, acknowledged the pressure, saying he had been asked about Olympic gold – when he was going to win: “I mean, every day. But now it’s over. It’s a positive thing.”
He also said, “You never can expect something, especially in ski racing. So many things have to come together to win a race.”
He smiled. “You know,” he said, “it’s very good.”