Giant slalom preview: Marcel Hirscher skis better than he lies
Austrian duels with Ted Ligety for 1st time at Sochi
Marcel Hirscher has arrived on the scene in Sochi, and was quick to give thanks to a teammate before Wednesday's giant slalom race.
Matthias Mayer got the Austrians off to a strong start last week with a downhill win, something he’s never done on the World Cup circuit. So it was a pleasant surprise for the team and country, as their most consistent downhiller Hannes Reichelt was felled by injury just before the Olympics.
The way Hirscher tells it, he’s free and easy after Mayer laid down the run of a lifetime.
" ... If I make no medals, the nation is not crying," Hirscher said at a press conference on Monday.
That may seem melodramatic, but skiing is the national sport in Austria, and there was much hue and cry when the men's team were shut out of the medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics after winning two gold and eight medals overall in Turin at the 2006 Winter Games.
It's certainly not believable that Hirscher is competing without pressure, however.
He's heading towards a possible third straight overall World Cup title, something that hasn't happened since Phil Mahre of the U.S. did it in the early 1980s. So it would not go unnoticed in the alpine world if Hirscher went two straight Olympics without a medal in the GS or slalom, his specialties.
While Hirscher has been elsewhere in Europe, the men's speed racers last week in Sochi dealt with warm temperatures, soft snow, and sharp turns on a hill that’s not part of the World Cup circuit.
The 24-year-old from Salzburg said he's been through rigorous training to prepare for icy conditions or soft snow, which also involved mixing up the distances between gates and turns.
"Whatever you can try, we've done it, and nothing more you can do right now," he said.
Hirscher has won a pair of GS races this season, finishing third the other three times.
He’ll look to reach the Olympic podium for the first time after coming up empty handed at the Vancouver Games despite a pair of top 5 finishes. He was just 9-100ths from the bronze in the giant slalom.
Ligety's Olympic struggles
Hirscher’s stiffest competition is American Ted Ligety, the discipline champ four of the last six seasons.
Ligety won the first two giant slalom races this season as well as the most recent one. He was also the winner at the 2013 world championship race ahead of Hirscher, with Manfred Moelgg of Italy taking bronze.
Ligety has more podium results in giant slalom, at 20, than any other active skier. But since striking gold at the 2006 Turin Games as a 21-year-old upstart, a fifth place showing has been his best result in four subsequent Olympic races.
Bode Miller, Ligety's teammate, will be in the starting gate for what is likely his last Olympic ride. The 36-year-old set an Olympic record on Sunday as the oldest alpine medallist, and broke down after winning bronze as he reflected on his younger brother, who died in 2013.
Miller's gunning for a seventh Olympic medal. He hasn't won a GS in over eight years and hit the podium this year only on the very familiar Beaver Creek course in Colorado, but it would be just like the enigmatic American to go out in style.
Of the three podium finishers in the GS at the Vancouver Olympics, the silver medallist is the best contender this time around.
Carlo Janka is defending champion, but hasn't been on the podium of a major event in three years after dealing with a heart scare. However, he has shown signs of late of regaining his confidence.
Kjetil Jansrud of Norway won silver in that Vancouver race. He has already won gold in the super-G and bronze in the downhill at Sochi, a relatively surprising figure as the top men’s skier through three of five events.
Jansrud's compatriot, the more decorated Aksel Lund Svindal, announced Monday he’s done with Sochi after a pair of top 10 showings and a bout with allergies. Svindal won bronze in the GS in Vancouver.
The only other man to win a GS this season, Felix Neureuther, also may not race Wednesday. The German came in as one of the hottest skiers on the circuit, but is still feeling the effects of a neck injury apparently suffered in a car accident in Sochi last week.
Meanwhile, Alexis Pinturault will look to rebound after a disappointing Olympic debut last week. The Frenchman, who has been on the giant slalom podium six times since February 2013, did not finish the second run of the super-combi.
Thomas Fanara, Pinturault's countryman, is a contender on the strength of a career where all five World Cup results have come in giant slalom.
Alpine Canada hopes the three skiers entered on Wednesday, all 23 and under, will represent the country for years to come.
Morgan Pridy of Whistler, B.C., returns after an impressive 10th place showing in the super-G.
Phil Brown of Toronto and Trevor Philp of Calgary, meanwhile, will get their first Olympic exposure.
The men's slalom will be the last race of the alpine programme at Sochi, taking place early Saturday.