BUKPYEONG, South Korea — What happened here Tuesday afternoon at Jeongseon Alpine Centre figures to linger for good in some corridor of memory, the mind’s eye casting it as a rampage, a fury, a vivid strand of mastery and maybe even as some sort of futurist painting.
Here down a slalom course that sneered with an unusual ration of pure hell came one of the best skiers in the history of mountains, yet also a man who hadn’t yet found an Olympic gold medal in 28 years and 11 months of life. Twenty-five of the entries would not finish the course. A wind gust showed up partway through and decided that for 15 seconds or so, this Marcel Hirscher from the Austrian Alps couldn’t see the floor.
All of that only deepened the memory of the 45.96-second slalom that ratified not only a champion in the two-pronged Alpine combined event but a champion of a caliber beyond most champions. Asked later whether his wait for a gold medal had enhanced the value of its arrival, Hirscher paused and said, “Not really. I mean, I’m just 28 years old, and sure, these are my third Olympic Games, but I think I’m” — he tried to find words, maybe even seemed to seek modesty — “but maybe in the best shape I’ve ever been.”
The wait had stretched long enough to come to seem senseless and unjust the way those waits sometimes do.
Hirscher placed fifth in the slalom and fourth in the giant slalom at Vancouver 2010, then fourth in the giant slalom and second in the slalom at Sochi 2014. In between and after those two, he had won six consecutive World Cup titles and passed his storied countryman Hermann Maier just last month to access second place all time with an unrealistic 55 World Cup wins. From 5-foot-8, he long since had towered.
Now he had vaulted from a sturdy 12th after the downhill to first, at a combined 2:06.52, ahead of French silver medalist Alexis Pinturault by 0.23 seconds and French bronze medalist Victor Muffat-Jeandet by 1.02, with the American Olympic champion from Turin in 2006, Ted Ligety, in fifth place at 33, pronouncing it “good to feel happy with my performance, you know, just not super-psyched on not ending with a medal.” Another American, the personality-rich 6-7, 25-year-old Bryce Bennett, placed 17th, while two others, Ryan Cochran-Siegle and Jared Goldberg, coped with spills.
Yet a noontime and afternoon of performances pretty much distilled to one. It shouted a reminder that these are the Olympics, where sometimes the stakes and the quadrennial rarity do intersect with a level of excellence almost inexplicable. Hirscher had begun with a worthy downhill run of 1:20.56, within 1.32 seconds of the leader, the onrushing 24-year-old German Thomas Dressen, who ended up ninth. He had felt “really proud of myself, because the last time I put on downhill skis before the first downhill training day here was exactly one year ago in St. Moritz during the world championships.”
In response to the much-asked Austrian question of, “Was it the right decision to start the combined? Yes or no,” he concluded that, “‘Okay, I’m in the top 30, and we made the right decision.”
He had stood well within three seconds of the lead, which had been his downhill goal.
He had sensed the time coming.
Contenders abounded, with Pinturault in a threatening 10th place, and with the Norwegians Aksel Lund Svindal and Kjetil Jansrud in second and fourth, but Hirscher and the ski intellectuals on the course knew the dynamic, dynastic truth. All that remained was the inconvenient fact of a course Hirscher described as “very aggressive” and “hard to gain speed and to find the right line” and, generally, unlike anything he had seen all his slaloming life.
“The conditions there are very interesting,” he said of the mountain, once down it. “I’ve never skied on this conditions before because minus-20 here in night hours is something that is unusual. But with 110 kilometers per hour, wind, it is so dry snow, unbelievable. Really hard, as well, for a slalom specialist to let the skis go in the slalom.”
So: “Well, trying to find solutions and trying to find references we made from years before on conditions that are nearly similar to this. Mostly, all the experiences I made before were held in America. This is more like here, for example, and it is completely different to European or Austrian snow.”
So the level of fight and want and skill within him had been even greater than it looked, when it already had looked like something else. It had looked like many things, maybe even like someone who had no further interest in hearing the chatter from among roughly 9 million Austrians about lacking a gold medal.
“I mean, every day,” he said cheerily of the questions, “but now it’s over and this is the positive thing.”
What’s not over are the two more slalom races in which the man is favored and just might have become favored more, owing simply to whatever relief that might have just alighted within.
“For sure,” he said. “Well, you know, I mean, no worries, I’m not traveling home tomorrow. But if I wished for, because I have my gold, I reached it, especially in Austria and everyone was expecting that I was going to win the gold medal at least once, so it is here. I’m super, super happy, to be very honest with you, because we were not expecting that I was going to be able to win this in the combined, so for me it is . . .”
Then the man who made a memory even for strangers paused and said, “I can’t grab it in this moment. But it will come later, hopefully.”
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