Jeongseon, South Korea (AP) — One of the greatest skiers of all time is finally an Olympic champion.
Marcel Hirscher, a six-time overall World Cup champion, won the men’s combined at the Pyeongchang Games on Tuesday, using his silky skills in the slalom leg of the event to rise from 12th place after the opening run of the downhill.
Now a three-time Olympian, the 28-year-old Hirscher until now had only won a silver medal despite never finishing below fifth in any race.
“I’m super happy because now this stupid question has gone away, if I’m thinking that my career is perfect without a gold medal,” Hirscher said. “Now the questions is zzzzzzit — deleted.”
Hirscher’s combined two-run time was 0.23 seconds faster than silver medalist Alexis Pinturault of France. Another Frenchman, Victor Muffat-Jeandet, took bronze, 1.02 behind Hirscher, after being 29th fastest in the opening downhill leg.
Victory was earned by posting the fastest slalom time despite skiing through a fierce cross wind that kicked up snow flurries.
“I was really talking to myself, ‘Are they kidding me?'” Hirscher said. “Are they seriously meaning the wind is coming this hard, in this moment?”
Hirscher stretched toward the finish line in a star shape with his left ski high off the snow. He briefly raised both his arms then skied directly out of the finish area with a business-like expression on his face to await Pinturault’s start two minutes later.
The fastest downhill racer in the early run, Thomas Dressen of Germany, dropped to ninth place, trailing Hirscher by 2.44 seconds. Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway did not even race the slalom despite placing second in downhill.
Hirscher has won a record six World Cup titles as the season’s best all-round skier and four world championship gold medals, including the combined in 2015. His 55 World Cup race wins is second on the all-time men’s list.
But his best Olympic result was a runner-up finish in slalom at the 2014 Sochi Games. He was fifth in slalom at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and had fourth-place finishes in each giant slalom.
After the bonus of this victory, Hirscher looks certain to start as the favorite in his top two events of slalom and giant slalom, which will be raced in nearby Yongpyong.
Tuesday’s race showed yet again that slalom, not downhill, is the key to success in the combined event.
Many of the best downhillers failed to finish, finding the slalom gates they rarely race too much to handle. It did not help that a swirling wind was whipping up mini-twisters of snow.
The reigning Olympic downhill champion, Matthias Mayer of Austria, was in third place but crashed off the course and knocked over a television cameramen as he slid down the bumpy slope.
Ted Ligety, the 2006 Olympic combined champion from the United States, was fifth.
Wind has buffeted both Alpine hills at the Pyeongchang Olympics, causing the men’s downhill and women’s giant slalom to be postponed until Thursday.
Weather was again a factor despite sunny blue skies in Jeongseon, though the race-time temperature for downhill was a frigid 12 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-11 degrees Celsius).
Gusts higher up the mountain forced organizers to lower the start, cutting about 20 seconds of skiing and making the downhill more like a super-G. Racers topped 75 mph (120 kph) but were guided to a safer line cresting the jumps.
“If it had been the downhill-only race, I’m not sure they would do this,” said Jared Goldberg of the United States, who was ninth in the speed leg and then went off course in slalom.
Hirscher wore bib No. 2 for the downhill and seemed to benefit from tailwinds before gusts swirled more strongly during a 15-minute delay caused by the third racer, Pavel Trikhichev, crashing out. The Russian slid into the safety fences and bloodied his mouth.
After a shorter, 1 1/4-mile (2.05-kilometer) downhill, organizers cut 10 gates from the slalom to better balance the race.
That was enough for Hirscher, despite a late charge by Pinturault, who added silver to his bronze in giant slalom from Sochi.
Many expect Tuesday’s race to be an Olympic farewell for combined, which has fallen out of favor with the rise in head-to-head parallel racing formats.
Combined was the original event at Alpine skiing’s Olympic debut in 1936. Traditionalists like the mix of skills, but racers are now so specialized that those good at one discipline tend not to be competitive at the other.
Svindal, a two-time world champion in combined, has not skied a competitive slalom run in two years. Hirscher almost never races downhills, but he put down a good one on Tuesday.
“I killed it,” the Olympic champion said.