Growing up near the Bavarian resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Maria Riesch was on skis virtually before she could walk. She went on to enjoy huge success on the junior circuit, before establishing herself as the leading light of German women’s Alpine skiing before she was even 20.
In February 2004, she recorded her first FIS World Cup victories, underlining her versatility as she topped the podium in the downhill and super-G at Haus Im Ennstal (AUT) and the slalom in Levi (FIN).
Throughout her career Höfl-Riesch showed an ability to master speed and technical events with equal flair. Indeed the only event in which she never managed a victory was the giant slalom. With the exception of 2005 and 2006, when her campaigns were blighted by injuries which meant she was unable to compete at Turin 2006, she has been a major contender for the large crystal globe every season that she has competed.
Despite competing at just two editions of the Olympic Winter Games, the German boasts an impressive medal tally: three gold medals (slalom and super combined at Vancouver 2010, and super combined at Sochi 2014) and one silver (super-G at Sochi 2014). She also claimed to world titles (slalom in 2009, super combined in 2013), and topped the overall rankings on the FIS World Cup circuit in 2011. To go with her one large crystal globe, she also won five small crystal globes (one downhill, one combined, two slalom and one super-G), and managed a total of 27 World Cup victories and 81 podiums from 356 starts.
An Olympic dream fulfilled
“The Olympic Games are the greatest experience one can have as an athlete,” says Höfl-Riesch. “They are what you dream about and what you work towards. When I think of the Olympic Games, naturally I think especially of Vancouver 2010 and the memories of those two gold medals - the most wonderful success of my sporting career.
Recalling her Olympic dreams as a youngster, she adds: “I remember what an inspiration it was for me as a young skier when Martina Ertl, Katja Seizinger and Hilde Gerg stood together on the podium in Nagano in 1998. That’s where I wanted to be one day. And then when I actually made it to the podium in Vancouver, and did so twice, it was such an indescribable feeling of happiness.”
Four years after winning two gold medals on the slopes of Whistler, on 10 February 2014 the German opened her Sochi campaign with a successful defence of her super combined title. Lying fifth after the downhill, a full 1.04 seconds behind the USA’s Julia Mancuso, she produced a stunning slalom performance to surge to the top of the final leaderboard.
“A lot was expected of me today. I was among the favourites and I knew I had to live up to the role. But it wasn’t easy. It was a tough contest,” she said after the race. “This is definitely one of my best victories, it’s very emotional.”
The victory made Höfl-Riesch only the second female skier to successfully defend a combined title at the Winter Games, joining Croatia’s Janica Kostelic (2002 and 2006). She also became only the second ever German female Alpine skier to win three Olympic golds, after Katja Seizinger.
Five days later, Höfl-Riesch added another Olympic medal to her haul, though this time the colour was an unfamiliar silver, as she finished second in the super-G, behind Austria’s Anna Fenninger.
“Our coaches told us we had to change a little on the final lip but I hit it too quick and couldn't modi-fy my trajectory. I didn't think I was so quick and that I was in the lead through the middle.
After that mistake at the bottom, I still find it hard to believe that I'm second. The surprise was even greater than in the combined… I’ve got another medal, and that’s fine by me,” she said.
After Sochi, Höfl-Riesch faced one final battle: to hold off the challenge of Anna Fenninger and preserve her place at the top of the overall classifications in the FIS World Cup. Already certain of winning the small crystal globe in the downhill, she suffered a bad fall in the final race of the season at Lenzerheide (Switzerland) on 12 March. It brought her season and indeed her competitive career to an abrupt end, and meant that she had to cede first place in the final overall rankings to Fenninger.
A few days later, as she took receipt of her downhill crystal globe, she was in reflective, and decisive, mood as she considered her latest achievements. "I gave everything I had for another Olympic medal, I worked hard to fulfill this dream again. It went well in the super combined in Sochi, and this was a big relief for me. The decision was not easy but I am of the opinion you should stop when you are at your best.”
You can follow Maria on the Olympic Athletes’ Hub.