Hirscher faces Olympic and World Cup challenges

VIENNA (AP) — When the pressure rises, Marcel Hirscher is in his element.

Following his successful defense of the overall World Cup ski title last season, the Austrian faces an even bigger challenge — not just retaining the overall championship but also winning Olympic gold in Sochi.

Hirscher bears the weight of expectations from a ski-mad nation after the Austrian men failed to win any medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

The 24-year-old takes additional motivation from that pressure, a situation he compares to a rather scary scene.

“If you’re standing in front of a big, big, huge wall, and you have no opportunity to climb up there, and then behind you, there are a hundred crazy dogs who want to eat you up, then you have to go for your life,” he said.

In 2012, Hirscher became the first Austrian since Benjamin Raich six years earlier to win the largest crystal globe for the season’s best allround skier.

By winning back-to-back overall titles, Hirscher has proven he knows how to handle pressure. Still, that doesn’t guarantee him anything for the new campaign.

“It’s possible but it will be really tough,” Hirscher said about adding a third championship. “I am not thinking about this. I am not sure if it’s me or Ted (Ligety) or Alexis (Pinturault) or Aksel (Lund Svindal), maybe Ivica (Kostelic). So many good guys ... I will try to ski as good as last year but if it doesn’t work, what can I do? I am not a machine.”

Hirscher finished third in last month’s season-opening giant slalom, which was dominated by Ligety, but he will start as the favorite in Sunday’s slalom in Levi, Finland.

“Ted showed all of us that he can be on the podium as well in slalom,” Hirscher said of the American, who makes no secret of his attempt to challenge the Austrian for the overall title. “He tested a lot from what I heard, and I am sure he will be much faster in slalom than last season.”

Hirscher has won 10 of his 18 career titles in skiing’s most technically demanding discipline. He landed on the podium in all nine World Cup races last season and won four of them.

Because of that consistency, Hirscher regarded last season as a major improvement despite one less slalom victory than the season before. In all-or-nothing style, Hirscher won five races in 2011-12 but failed to finish just as many times.

“I have no other choice than to give 100 percent. I have to ski at full throttle,” Hirscher said, adding that he’s been working hard with his team on altering his slalom technique in order to lower the risk of straddling a gate and skiing out.

Besides being part of the federation’s national squad, Hirscher has been building his own support crew, including a coach, a service man, a physician, a press officer, and most notably his father Ferdinand, who, just like his Dutch mother Sylvia, used to work as a skiing instructor.

Austria coach Mathias Berthold is wary of putting too much pressure on Hirscher’s shoulders.

“Marcel had two stunning seasons,” Berthold said. “You can always do better but you have to be realistic. Too many expectations will kill you, will slow you down. What has been doesn’t count anymore. If you want to develop more, you have to get rid of the past and work here and now. I think Marcel has unbelievable qualities to do just that.”

Hirscher won the slalom and took silver in giant slalom at the world championships in Schladming this year for his first individual medals at major championships.

He placed fourth in GS at the 2009 worlds, and fourth in GS again and fifth in slalom at the Olympics the next year. He missed the 2011 worlds with a broken left foot, an injury that, oddly enough, helped to boost his career.

“That was the most dramatic experience in my career,” said Hirscher, who then learned to take nothing for granted. “I was destroyed when I was lying on the couch in front of the TV and watching my teammates race at the worlds. I’ve learnt a lot. It’s weird you learn more from your losses than from your victories.”

Off the slopes, Hirscher aims to stay grounded in the face of increased interest from fans — his Facebook page has been liked more than 237,000 times — and media.

Hirscher lost his national sportsman of the year award to Bayern Munich’s David Alaba last week but he was voted Austria’s coolest athlete in an online poll recently.

“I always find it difficult to judge myself,” Hirscher said. “I am not someone who is watching his own pictures five times a day. I am Marcel, if people like me, that’s cool. It they don’t, that’s fine as well. I’ll always try to stay close to who I am.