The winner of a record six consecutive overall FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup titles and a six-time world champion, Austria’s Marcel Hirscher has yet to taste Olympic glory. A silver medallist in the slalom at Sochi 2014, he has set his sights on a long-awaited gold at PyeongChang 2018, where he will compete in at least four events.
Hirscher made history when he won the giant slalom at Kranjska Gora (SLO) on 4 March 2017. The 44th victory of his career, just two days after his 28th birthday, handed the Austrian that record sixth overall FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup title, extending an unbeaten sequence that stretches back to 2012. That meant he overtook Marc Girardelli as the most successful skier in the competition’s history. The Luxembourger won five big crystal globes in his career, though not consecutively.
Hirscher rounded off the 2016/17 season with another giant slalom win at the FIS World Cup Finals in Aspen (USA). The 45th victory of his career, it was also his 107th podium finish, a tally that also includes 42 second places and 20 third places.
The Austrian’s World Cup run is all the more remarkable for the fact that he does not compete in the downhill, has never won a combined event, and has just one super-G victory to his name, in Beaver Creek (USA) in 2016.
The cornerstones of Hirscher’s sustained success over the years have been the slalom and the giant slalom, events in which he has won 20 and 22 races respectively, collecting four small crystal globes in each. Those impressive statistics are founded on the most solid of techniques and a resolutely attacking style.
Hirscher showcased those attributes yet again at the 2017 FIS Alpine World Championships in St Moritz (SUI), where he secured a maiden giant slalom crown and a second slalom world title to go with the one he pocketed on home snow in Schladming in 2013.
Having won both events by a distance, the Austrian became the first man to complete the slalom/giant slalom double since Italian great Alberto Tomba in Sierra Nevada (ESP) in 1996.
Hirscher’s St Moritz brace took his career haul of world championship golds to six. As well as that first slalom title, the Salzburg native also won the team event in Schladming, a title he helped Austria retain in Beaver Creek two years later, when he also landed combined gold.
Hirscher’s preparations for PyeongChang 2018 were dealt a blow in August 2017 when he broke his left ankle in training.
The injury was especially unwelcome for Hirscher, given that the FIS decided to change the configuration of giant slalom skis at the start of the 2017/18 the season. The modifications mean skiers have to adhere to a minimum ski length of 193 centimetres, with a -5cm tolerance, while the minimum ski radius has been shortened to 30 metres.
He acknowledged it was a big blow that gave his rivals the chance to steal a march on him as they familiarised themselves with the new equipment – an advantage that could, in his own words, “be the difference between gold and silver”.
In typically positive and pragmatic fashion, Hirscher’s solution was “to fight fire with fire and start working myself on weaker areas which I normally wouldn’t have time for at this point in the season”.
After getting back onto his skis again in mid-October 2017, the six-time overall World Cup-winner is now confident about his chances at the XXIII Olympic Winter Games: “By the time the Olympics in PyeongChang come round I am sure that I will be back on top form,” he predicted. And he already made his comeback on 12 November in the slalom in Levi (Finland), where after a good run (4th), his lack of preparation told on the second leg, and he finished 17th.
The quest for Olympic gold
Hirscher’s father Ferdinand, a ski school director, put him on skis for the first time when he was two. Tipped for greatness by many observers, he made a habit of winning in his youth, collecting a total of three junior world championship gold medals, including a slalom/giant slalom double in 2008.
The Austrian prodigy made his Olympic Winter Games debut at Vancouver 2010, where he picked up valuable experience, finishing fourth in the giant and fifth in the slalom.
By the time he resumed his hunt for Olympic medals at Sochi 2014, he was already established as a World Cup heavyweight. But just as in Vancouver four years earlier, he came home fourth in the giant, a race won by the USA’s Ted Ligety, one of his biggest rivals.
When the slalom came around on the final day of the Games, the Austrian lay a lowly ninth after the first run, 1.28 seconds adrift of his compatriot Mario Matt. With his medal hopes seemingly gone, Hirscher threw caution to the wind in his second descent and posted the fastest time to climb up to second place behind Matt, who won gold by a mere 28 hundredths of a second.
“Thank God that second run was so special. If it hadn’t have been, I wouldn’t have been able to come back,” he said afterwards.
Four years and many victories and trophies later, Hirscher is about to renew his quest for the one item missing from his extensive medal collection: an Olympic gold. He will have at least four bites of the cherry at PyeongChang 2018: in the slalom, giant slalom, the new team event, and the combined. He may even have five, should he decide to line up in the super-G.
Should PyeongChang prove to be his last Olympic Winter Games, as he has hinted, the multi-talented Austrian has every chance of ensuring it is a golden swansong.