BEAVER CREEK – Lounging on the couch with his broken left ankle in a cast, Marcel Hirscher felt something he hadn’t in a long time — no pressure.
Now that he’s back on the slopes with his ankle mended and returning to his winning ways, that familiar tension has returned.
The six-time overall World Cup champion can’t escape the one glaring omission from his impressive resume: an Olympic gold. He insisted he doesn’t give it a second thought heading into the Pyeongchang Games. Still, all eyes will be on him constantly between now and February.
Especially after a performance like Sunday’s. The Austrian standout stormed back from a first-run deficit to win a World Cup giant slalom race on an afternoon when rival Ted Ligety struggled.
Hirscher finished in a combined time of 2 minutes, 37.30 seconds to show he’s getting back up to speed after breaking his ankle in a training accident in August. Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway was second, 0.88 seconds back, and first-run leader Stefan Luitz of Germany took third.
“Today I thought: ‘OK, let’s go for it. Let’s give it a try. Let’s see what’s possible,’” Hirscher explained. “So unexpected was never a win before.”
Sitting next to him, Kristoffersen couldn’t help but chime in.
“I’m not surprised,” Kristoffersen said.
“Come on, Henrik,” Hirscher responded.
It was Hirscher’s 23rd World Cup giant slalom win, which ties him for third most among men with Switzerland’s Michael von Gruenigen. That leaves him trailing only Ingemar Stenmark (46) and Ligety (24) in the discipline.
“Marcel’s a great athlete,” Kristoffersen said. “He’s making sure that everything is lined up as good as possible for himself. That’s one of the reasons he has won six overall globes in a row. Of course, he’s mentally strong.”
These days, he’s getting physically strong, too. He hardly feels any discomfort in that ankle, especially on race day.
“If you’re so pumped, with this high adrenaline, it doesn’t hurt,” said Hirscher, who was 17th during a slalom in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 12. “It is completely free of pain. I didn’t think about it. Maybe during training sometimes I think about it or feel a little pain. But it is not worth talking about it.”
Hirscher’s not the only top GS racer on the mend. Ligety showed signs of returning to form following surgery to fix herniated disks in January. He was second after the first pass through the course, but he made several small mistakes on his final run to slip to seventh.
“I’m happy with how I’ve been skiing and how my body feels. That’s good,” Ligety said. “But Beaver Creek has been a really good hill for me. I expected a lot more.”
As a whole, the Americans turned in a lackluster performance on their home course. In three races, the top finish was by Ligety. Tommy Ford had a career-best 10th-place World Cup finish Sunday.
“That was much better skiing,” Ford said. “It was cool to do some good arcs.”
Starting third-to-last in the final run, Hirscher powered his way down the course to knock Kristoffersen from the top spot. Ligety couldn’t catch him and neither could Luitz, who picked up his fifth World Cup podium finish.
Luitz was impressed with Hirscher.
“He’s unbelievable. He was injured and trained like two weeks, maybe less, and just amazing how he came back,” Luitz said. “He’s the best skier in the world.”
Hence, the pressure that only figures to escalate as the Olympics in South Korea near.
“The first day I was able to walk without the cast and no crutches, the pressure began to pop up again,” Hirscher said. “But especially after today, it is completely the same (pressure).
“The last month was really hard. Just skiing, skiing, skiing, as many runs as possible, trying to gain the speed. ... I improved myself through every turn.”