With rivals struggling, Hirscher eyes record 6th title
SOELDEN, Austria (AP) Racing on home snow in Sunday's season-opener, Marcel Hirscher will start his quest for an unprecedented achievement in the 50-year history of the Alpine skiing World Cup.
No skier, male or female, has ever won the overall title six years in a row.
Hirscher's illustrious compatriot Annemarie Moser-Proell is the only six-time champion the sport has seen, but her triumphs in the 1970s were not consecutive.
Hirscher is the obvious favorite again - although he sees it differently.
''I am not sure I am ready,'' the Austrian said Friday, two days before the first of 37 races this season.
''I think nobody is really ready for Soelden. It's too early in the season,'' he said. ''There is always a point in your preparation for the season that you think everything is wonderful. Then different conditions come up and you find out nothing is perfect.''
Hirscher's dominance increased over the past three years, with a Norwegian rival finishing runner-up each time.
He won the 2013-14 title leading Aksel Lund Svindal by 131 points. The following year, he beat Kjetil Jansrud by 160. And last season, Henrik Kristoffersen finished 497 behind.
''My energy levels are not unlimited. There is no certainty that it will always go on like this,'' Hirscher said, adding that the prospect of setting another record doesn't unsettle him.
''I don't think there is extra pressure on my shoulders,'' he said.
Along with the Norwegians, Frenchman Alexis Pinturault is likely to be among Hirscher's closest challengers.
Last season, Hirscher trailed Svindal until the former two-time overall champion injured his right knee in a downhill crash in Kitzbuehel, rupturing a cruciate ligament and damaging his meniscus and cartilage.
Svindal returned to training on snow in August but wasn't sure when, or even if, he could race again.
''It's a slower process than it would have been if it were up to me,'' said Svindal, who has twice before returned from serious injuries.
''I am still somewhat skiing, but not the amount or at the level I want to,'' he said. ''I skied with Kjetil and (Aleksander Aamodt) Kilde in South America, but they started at the top and I started halfway down the hill.''
He expects Hirscher to defend his title.
''Behind him you have Pinturault and hopefully one of us (Norwegians),'' Svindal said.
Jansrud said he will need to improve in giant slalom in order to keep up with Hirscher, who usually scores heavily in the technical events and earns additional points in super-G.
''Physically I am in a way better shape than last year when I had some back problems,'' Jansrud said.
Kristoffersen, a slalom specialist, became a surprise overall contender last season after winning six races in his strongest discipline, but he failed to score big points in other events.
Pinturault, who has been in the top 10 for the past five years, had a similar issue.
He finished third overall, getting most of his points from GS, but didn't add enough from other disciplines to become a real threat to Hirscher.