Austria ski team relies on Hirscher again in Sochi
VIENNA (AP) With injured Hannes Reichelt ruled out for the Olympics, Austria's main medal hopes for men's Alpine skiing in Sochi are with Marcel Hirscher - once again.
At last year's home world championships, the Austrian men failed to win any medal in the first week's speed events before Hirscher saved the ski-mad nation's honors by earning two golds and a silver in the technical disciplines.
A similar weight could be resting on Hirscher's shoulders in Sochi, where the former ''Wunderteam'' is eager to bounce back from becoming a flat-out flop at the Games four years ago.
The country with nearly twice as many Olympic Alpine medals as any other picked up only four in Vancouver - and zero by their men for the first time at an Olympics they entered.
''What happened four years ago is no issue anymore,'' men's head coach Mathias Berthold told The Associated Press. ''Everybody is optimistic we'll get to the podium this time. The boys live from race to race.''
Berthold is aware that, yet again, expectations from Austrian fans and media will be high.
''In Austria, people sometimes can't accept that other nations can be better at times,'' said Berthold, who coached the German women when Maria Hoefl-Riesch and Viktoria Rebensburg earned them three golds in Vancouver.
Two-time overall World Cup champion Hirscher is confident he can handle the pressure again.
''A ski racer is like a child - you may fall down sometimes but you always have to get up again,'' said Hirscher, who was fourth in GS and fifth in slalom four years ago.
Hirscher leads this season's World Cup standings in both disciplines. It's mainly in the speed events Austria has been struggling for years now.
Former world downhill champion Michael Walchhofer, who won Olympic silver in 2006, ended his career three years ago, leaving a gap the Austrians haven't been able to fill properly.
''Since Walchhofer retired, we haven't had a leader within the speed team like he was,'' Berthold said.
Being a GS specialist, Reichelt surprisingly became the only Austrian to win downhill races in the last two World Cup seasons.
However, two days after beating Aksel Lund Svindal and Bode Miller to win the classic Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbuehel, Reichelt needed surgery on persistent back problems and had to end his season prematurely.
''(Reichelt's) victory has been a relief to the Austrian team,'' said Max Franz, who placed third in the Hahnenhamm super-G Sunday. ''Finally we have a win again in a speed event though not by a guy from the speed team. We'll still have to work on that.''
The Austrian speed racers don't look back in anger to Vancouver, and neither do the slalom and GS specialists.
''No one on the team speaks about Vancouver anymore so it doesn't put extra pressure on us,'' two-time world slalom champion Mario Matt said. ''We live here and now. In the end, everyone is racing for himself. You don't think about whether the team has already won medals or not.''
Matt and Hirscher combined have earned three wins and four more top-three finishes in World Cup slaloms this season, leaving Austria a strong favorite for gold in the discipline in Sochi.
That, however, doesn't guarantee anything, as Reinfried Herbst well remembers from the 2010 Olympics.
Herbst, the 2006 silver medalist, was leading the World Cup slalom standings in 2010 and racked up back-to-back wins in Kitzbuehel and Kranjska Gora before heading to Vancouver.
''Me and (Julien) Lizeroux were first and second in the standings,'' the Austrian said. ''But in Vancouver, everything was different and suddenly (Giuliano) Razzoli won and we finished 9th and 10th. No, the status of being a favorite doesn't bring you anything at the Olympics.''