JEONGSEON, South Korea (AP) Eventually, The Question began to bother Marcel Hirscher.
It wasn’t so much the actual content, which was always some variation of: ”Do you need an Olympic gold medal to validate your otherwise-perfect skiing career?” He was certain he knew the answer: ”No.” It was more the incessant echo of it, over and over.
How often did Hirscher hear The Question? ”Ev-e-ry day,” he said. This was offered with a smile Tuesday, because that line of inquiry will never again arise. As of the Alpine combined event at the Pyeongchang Games, Hirscher is, at long last, an Olympic champion.
The 28-year-old Austrian used a sublime slalom run on an icy course to rise from 12th after the opening downhill in the two-run competition and added that Winter Games triumph to a substantial collection of accolades. He already owned a record six consecutive overall World Cup titles and four individual world championship golds.
”I’m super happy, because now this stupid question has gone away,” Hirscher said, before adding with gusto, ”Now The Question is Zzzzzzztt. Deleted.”
Hirscher finished in 2 minutes, 6.52 seconds, which made him 0.23 seconds faster than silver medalist Alexis Pinturault of France. Another Frenchman, Victor Muffat-Jeandet, was third, more than a full second behind Hirscher.
France hadn’t had a had a top-three finish in a men’s Olympic combined race in 70 years, let alone a pair of medals on the same afternoon. Might never happen again, either: There is a movement afoot to drop the combined from the Olympic schedule because International Ski Federation, race organizers and broadcasters instead want more short, TV-friendly parallel racing events where skiers go down the piste two at a time, head-to-head.
”I’m disappointed to see it go away,” said Sasha Rearick, head coach of the U.S. men’s Alpine team, expressing an opinion voiced by several others. ”It’s been a good event for us for many reasons. It’s the one thing that brings the tech and the speed together.”
Fitting, then, that a race considered the greatest test of versatility in a sport of increasing specialization was how Hirscher finally got his gold.
As recently as two weeks ago, he said, he wasn’t even sure whether it was worth entering the combined, in part because it would steal training time away from his better events and also because he hadn’t been on downhill skis in a year.
So Hirscher went into the downhill merely hoping to be within 3 seconds of the lead going into the slalom; he wound up less than 1+ seconds behind, the beneficiary of catching a lull in swirling winds. The same gusts that had led to the postponement of the first two races on the Alpine schedule. Others found themselves dealing with headwinds or blasts of air that hit them from the side.
”He got lucky this morning with the wind,” Rearick said. ”But his second run, in the slalom, I mean, he had the adversity there. The wind was blowing hard. You couldn’t see the snow. In slalom, when you can’t see your feet, it’s really tough.”
But Hirscher can handle that sort of thing better than anyone. Temperatures around zero and winds approaching 50 mph (75 kph) left the snow hard and dry, more like what’s found in Colorado than Austria. But because he packs a lot of strength into his 5-foot-8 (1.73-meter) frame, he can change direction quickly to recover from mistakes.
Two-time Olympic champion Ted Ligety of the U.S., fifth Tuesday, lauded another Hirscher trait.
”His mental ability is second to none in this sport. You often see so many guys who are fast in training and can’t figure it out in a race. He’s the exact opposite,” Ligety said. ”You can train with him and beat him and you’re all super-confident. Then the next day, he goes and wins a race by a lot.”
Hirscher has dominated the week-in, week-out World Cup circuit, accumulating 55 race wins, second among men only to Ingemar Stenmark’s 86. He has nine world championship medals. This is his third Olympics, but the only previous medal was a slalom silver in 2014.
If he never did add gold?
”That would be a gaping hole, for sure,” Ligety said.
And while Hirscher himself has insisted all along he did not need to burnish his legacy, he sure did look pleased when he leapt atop the podium, then pumped both arms overhead, during a flower ceremony.
There could be more to come: Hirscher will be favored in the slalom and giant slalom.
”He is the greatest skier ever, and he can break all the records,” Pinturault said. ”It just depends how long he wants to continue.”
No matter how long Hirscher does continue, he’ll never again have to hear The Question.
AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar and Pat Graham contributed to this report.
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