Abrahamson: Ligety exits quietly, Hirscher brilliant again

Marcel Hirscher

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Marcel Hirscher, the Austrian ski god, is finally having his moment. King of the World Cup tour for the past seven seasons, on Sunday Hirscher won his second Olympic gold, in the giant slalom. 

Hirscher had won a grand total of no Olympic medals, nada, zip, zero in two prior Games. Now he might — could, should — win three here at PyeongChang. The slalom, another Hirscher specialty, is due to be run Thursday.

To watch Hirscher ski is to watch one of the great athletes of our — or any — time. Like being courtside in Chicago to see Michael Jordan back in the day. At Wimbledon for a Roger Federer volley. At the Water Cube in Beijing in 2008 when Michael Phelps was swimming the butterfly.

Even if you don’t know the first thing about alpine skiing, this is why the Olympics, and Marcel Hirscher, are great, and why it’s so doubly great that the Olympic spotlight is turning Hirscher’s way, so the world — beyond alpine ski geeks, and the crush of the Austrian media — can fully appreciate him. He is rhythm in motion. 

Where Bode Miller used to attack the mountain, Hirscher speaks to it. With the precision of his long, arcing turns through the ice and snow, each of his races becomes an opportunity for performance art, a display — genuinely — of athletic genius.

Also, Hirscher for sure has a way with words.

Hirscher finished in fourth in this event in both Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014. Last week, he made up for the one thing missing on his resume — an Olympic gold — with victory in the super-combined, then offered one of the great quotes, testimony to the intensity of high-stakes alpine skiing in Austria:

“For sure. 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, zzz, deleted.”

Since Sochi, Hirscher has run 33 World Cup giant slaloms. The results: 1st: 17, 2nd: 7, 3rd, 4. That’s 28. His worst finish: sixth. 

To win more than half your starts in — any discipline in — alpine racing is, in a word, ridonculous. 

To compare:

France’s Alexis Pinturault: 1st, 9; 2nd, 5; 3rd, 3. That’s a total of 17. (Hirscher has that many first-place finishes.) Worst: DNF.

Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen: 1st, 1; 2nd, 4; 3rd, 6. That’s 11. Worst: DNF.

If you’re Kristoffersen or Pinturault, aren’t you feeling, say, a little like Scottie Pippen? Great in your own right but, you know?

This World Cup season alone, Kristoffersen has finished second to Hirscher six times. 

In the super-combined here at these Games, Pinturault took second, behind Hirscher. 

In Sunday’s race, Kristoffersen finished second, 1.27 seconds back of Hirscher. Pinturault finished third, 1.31 behind.

American racer Ted Ligety used to own this event: the Sochi 2014 giant slalom gold medalist, he was world champion in 2011, 2013 and 2015. Pinturault took Sochi 2014 bronze.

Odds were always against Ligety repeating. Only once in history has the Olympic male giant slalom champ repeated: the Italian Alberto Tomba, 1988 and 1992. The odds grew longer when, in January 2016, Ligety tore the ACL in his right knee; almost exactly a year later, he announced he was having back surgery. 

“I am the healthiest I have felt in I don’t know how many years, a long time now,” Ligety said at the start of these Games.

Indeed, on Jan. 28, Ligety had reached a World Cup podium for the first time since 2015, a third-place in a GS in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. 

Way back in 2006, Ligety won here, his first World Cup victory — a win that came that season after his Torino gold medal in the combined. He was just 21 years old. Now he’s 33, and a new dad, with wife Mia, to 9-month-old son, Jax.

There was promise, perhaps, in Ligety’s fifth-place finish — behind Hirscher — in last week’s super-combined. 

Any such promise evaporated quickly. He ran a full 2.44 seconds behind Hirscher in that first run. That would put him 20th at the break, or as he acknowledged to reporters, “way out of it now.”

He explained, “I just didn’t attack the way I should have or could have. No explanation with that.

“… My goal was definitely to try to be challenging for a medal here. I thought that was definitely within my range …

“I was really surprised when I saw the time. I didn’t feel like I crushed it. But I didn’t feel two and a half seconds bad.” 

Ligety’s second run left him tied at the end of the day for 15th. 

Considering his relatively low slalom ranking and the pounding that slalom demands, Sunday’s GS was — just like that, that quickly, that quietly — likely the final race of Ligety’s outstanding Olympic career. 

“This is probably it for me at these Games,” he said after run two, adding that he is planning to head back to Europe, to race the remainder of the World Cup season.

Asked about Hirscher, Ligety said, “He crushed it, for sure. I mean, he has been good all year. That’s no surprise.” 
By the time he began his second run, Hirscher’s advantage over second place — by then, Kristoffersen — was 1.31 seconds. 

Kristoffersen had to ski the fastest second run to leap from 10th after the first leg to silver. “It was a great second run,” Kristoffersen said, smiling, explaining that he had skied “a lot more straighter and [with] a lot more aggression.”

Hirscher skied just four-hundredths of a second slower than Kristoffersen in the second run. 

And still won by 1.27. 

That is physicality and intelligence, ski genius, made manifest.

“He’s in his own league,” Kristofferson said of Hirscher. “We are fighting for silver and bronze, for sure.”

American Ryan Cochran-Siegle’s second-run time — third-fastest — moved him from 21st after run one to a tie for 11th (with Canada’s Erik Read), the top American finish. Tommy Ford was 20th. 

In winning, Hirscher :

— became the first man to win the super-combined and the GS at the same Olympics,

— became the 10th man to win multiple golds at a single Winter Games and the first since another Austrian, Benny Raich in Torino in 2006, and

— joined Raich, Hermann Maier and Matthias Mayer (two) and Toni Sailer (three) as the only Austrian men with multiple alpine ski gold medals.

Sailer, Jean-Claude Killy of France, Croatia’s Janica Kostelić: three alpine ski golds at a single Games is rare air, indeed.

At a post-race news question, Hirscher was, naturally, asked whether he was thinking about three gold medals. The answer: “No.”

You haven’t been thinking about this, really? “Not at all.”

Seriously? “I didn’t think about the slalom race until you asked me this question.”

Also, this, a few moments before, and Marcel Hirscher will be here all week: 

“It’s a new race. Now people are expecting the same things. So it will be the same situation. We will see. Right now, I can feel that I am getting a little tired a little bit. We are already two and a half weeks here. Always, very cold temperatures. Sorry, friends of Asia, but right now I can’t see rice anymore. Two and a half weeks of rice for a European guy is — pretty much.”


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