PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — In the 800-person village of Annaberg, Austria, tucked in a valley in the Alps about 50 miles outside Salzburg, the grass in summertime grows greenest up the mountain. Hundreds of years ago, farmers would take their cows up to graze on the rich grass and herbs, and they built tiny farmhouses for shelter. As farming decreased over generations, the farmhouses became small bars for hikers and skiers. Ferdinand Hirscher acquired one of those ancient farmhouses-turned-bars and made a little living.
Ferdinand’s son, Marcel Hirscher, grew up in a rustic environment. He did not shower with warm water until his early teens. But he needed to walk only 300 yards to climb into a chair lift. Annaberg contained a scarcity of flat earth, and Hirscher gained a natural ability to navigate bumps, bluffs and swales, and feel the ground beneath him.
“My good feeling for keeping the balance during ski racing comes from the place where I grew up,” Hirscher said. “Living in the mountains, learning to walk on rocks, was important to improve my stability.”
Hirscher spoke Sunday night, at a long table next to a bar at Austria House, wearing red sneakers and jeans, surrounded by men quaffing sweet wine and Stiegl. He stands 5 feet 8 and has large features; thick, tousled hair; a scruffy beard and an unassuming vibe. You would not assume, perhaps aside from his overly muscled torso, you were talking to one of the greatest athletes on the planet.
Hirscher is the only reason American Mikaela Shiffrin cannot be unequivocally called the most dominant ski racer at the PyeongChang Olympics. Last year, Hirscher won his sixth consecutive overall World Cup championship; no other racer had ever won six. He has won 10 races this season, all in the slalom and giant slalom, already a career high. He has 55 career wins, surpassing Austrian legend Hermann Maier’s 54.
But he comes to PyeongChang to race in the slalom, GS and downhill combined with a glaring gap in his résumé: In two prior Olympics, Hirscher won only a silver medal, in the slalom at Sochi in 2014. The lack of a gold has become an obsessive topic in Austrian media, and Hirscher admits to feeling pressure to win here — pressure intensified by his declaration this will be his last Olympics, even though he is only 28. At a news conference Sunday, an English reporter asked Hirscher how important it was to him to enjoy his final Games.
“Not really,” Hirscher said. “I am not here for making holidays.”
Skiing is embedded in the culture of Austria, a way of life as much as a sport, and the best racers obtain high-wattage fame. In 2015, an Austrian singer named Ro Bergman recorded “Best Time (Song for Marcel)” about Hirscher, and it sold enough to become the Austrian equivalent of a platinum record. Hirscher cannot eat at restaurants without attracting a flock of autograph seekers. He was once stopped, to his surprise, for a photo at a subway station in Japan.
“Sometimes, when he wants to go to a movie at the cinema, he waits until the film is starting and it’s dark,” said Stefan Illek, Hirscher’s public relations manager. “He sits in the last row. And he goes before it’s over, so he never knows who is the murderer.”
Christian Hoeflehner, race manager at Atomic, the skiing company that outfits Hirscher, visited him at a practice session one day. Hoeflehner was standing about 20 meters from the course as Hirscher whooshed past. His phone rang, so he answered. After Hirscher finished his runs, he sought Hoeflehner.
“Hey,” Hirscher asked him, “who have you been calling?”
Hoeflehner, a former coach of Hirscher’s, was astonished — most racers can see only a gate or two in front of them. The best can see terrain up ahead. Hirscher was spotting a phone in his hand, in his peripheral vision.
“Since then,” Hoeflehner said, “I’m not on the phone anymore when he’s skiing.”
Hirscher’s extraordinary vision is something he cannot turn off. He said he intends to focus on the track only, but he will still notice details to his sides. “I remember very often races where I exactly knew where my dad was standing during the race,” Hirscher said. “I knew his jacket.”
Hirscher downplays his ability to see so much and maybe even fails to grasp what he possesses. “I think every athlete can tell you the same story,” Hirscher said. “I think it is nothing special.”
Of course it is. Even accepting the marvel of his vision, there is not one single skill that makes Hirscher great, but rather a collection of attributes that form something like genius. He trains like a maniac and fixates on details. “Hermann Maier, after every time he wins a race, he drank five beers,” Illek said. “Marcel, never.”
Hirscher studies courses and has a sense, both innate and studied, for when to push and which gates he must treat with caution. His coordination and turns could only come from a lifetime of skiing and years of professional refinement.
“He’s technically at a completely different level than I can imagine being at,” said American Bode Miller, a six-time Olympic medalist and now an NBC Sports analyst. “He’s super balanced. He’s virtually perfect in terms of technique.”
Miller drew a near-equivalence between Alpine ski racing and NASCAR in regard to the importance of equipment. A feel for developing and selecting setups is considered a skill. Hirscher can reject or accept a pair of skis not after a few practices, like most skiers, but after a snowmobile tows him the final 50 meters to the starting gate. He can still feel the ground beneath his feet.
A typical skier may bring 10 to 20 pairs of skis to the Olympics — more if he is skiing multiple disciplines. Hirscher had 92 pairs made for the Olympics, brought to South Korea in a shipping container at the rough cost of 25,000 euros, or about $30,000. He could sense the difference in each one.
“Not everyone is happy if they hear it, but I think [equipment] is around 50 percent” of success, Hirscher said. “There is no chance to win a race with a s----- setup. No chance. But the best ski is not helping you if you’re a s----- athlete.”
The other peripheral factor helping Hirscher to all-time status, Miller said, is how well suited he is to the time in which he competes, which could be described as an era of risk management. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Alpine skiing was dominated by Meier, Miller and other daredevils who created an ethos of bombing down mountains as if their next meal depended on victory. Skiers pushed one another to choose the fastest and most aggressive lines.
Technology and competitive priorities have created a stronger lean toward calculation. Skiers want to ensure better season-end finishes, and DNFs are poison to those standings. They will sacrifice speed to guarantee they cross the finish line.
Hirscher’s blend of balance, technical artistry, fitness, vision and feel for equipment allows him a wider margin for error than his competitors. A well-managed run, far inside the bounds of his limits, would require most skiers to take risks — risks competitors are unlikely to take. Hirscher is a master of long-term strategy, but his skill also tilts the game in his favor.
“If he’s training with Ted [Ligety], and he knows he’s as fast as Ted in training, Marcel is 100 percent sure, ‘Okay, I can kick his ass in the race,’ ” Hoeflehner said. “That’s confidence.”
This season has been different, victory after victory. Having won six consecutive overall titles and coming off an injury, Hirscher has grown more aggressive — and shown he has the skill to still cross the line without fail. “This is a fun season for him,” Illek said. “If he doesn’t win the overall, he’s still the best skier. Six times in a row is enough.” At the Olympics, external forces may convince him to take a similar attitude.
“The Austrian newspapers are crazy,” Illek said. “If he wins the gold medal, instead of saying, ‘Fantastic!’ they say, ‘Oh, Hirscher, sure.’ If he don’t win, it’s Watergate.”
Last year, while holding the crystal globe given to the overall champion, Hirscher claimed he would prefer to win another of those trophies over an Olympic gold medal. “We have enough Olympic champions from Austria,” Hirscher said. He is consistent in his stance: The Olympics are a one-time crapshoot, but a season title is clear proof who the best skier is.
“For me, personally, it would be not a big deal,” Hirscher said. “It would be for sure a disappointment if I don’t win a gold medal. But I think it would be pretty easy for me to handle this. Because I know I will try my best. I’ve done everything for this. What more can I do? Nothing. But for sure, it is not fun to read the newspapers.”
It’s not just the newspapers. Even if Europeans are far more likely to lean toward Hirscher’s way of thinking, those in the ski world believe Hirscher’s career would feel incomplete, if still momentous, without Olympic gold.
“It’s important, for sure, to win a gold medal,” said Ligety, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for the United States. “That’s an important piece of rounding out a legacy like his. But at the same time, when you have 50-something World Cup victories, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re still one of the greatest of all time.”
Sunday night, Hirscher walked into a news conference with 11 television cameras. An hour later, he was finishing one-on-one interviews with television reporters, three questions apiece. He admitted he would be more nervous at these Games than any other.
“This is not easy to handle this pressure,” Hirscher said. “I only have three chances, and this will be my last three chances.”
Hirscher would be 32 at the next Games, but he knows he will retire before then. He has spent more than a decade on the World Cup tour, all of it with complete devotion. He can start to feel the toll of the precision he demands of himself. He senses the pull of a relaxed life, a normal life. He believes every skier must recognize when the time comes when maintaining their highest level becomes too arduous.
“It is not this year, maybe next year, but for sure not four years longer,” Hirscher said. “You have to accept you are getting tired of being always 100 percent under pressure, being always 100 percent on the line, being always 100 percent on the focus on everything and being a professional athlete. It is not forever.”
It was getting late at the bar inside Austria House. Hirscher rose and ambled toward the exit, his longtime girlfriend trailing behind. In two days, he would begin his final Olympics, one of the greatest ever looking for a final slice of validation. For now, he looked like he didn’t need anything more, taking one step after the next, on solid ground.