BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — In one horrifying instant on a road in Austria, Marcel Hirscher had to pick between ramming an oncoming car or a tree.
The reigning overall World Cup champion was going about 50 mph near Salzburg last May when a woman cut in front of him to make a turn.
Trees to the right or the vehicle – one was about to be hit.
At the moment before impact, the Austrian skier noticed a person sitting in the passenger’s seat.
So he treated the situation like a giant slalom course. He veered around the car like he would a gate, and struck the tree in such a way that he only suffered minor bruises and a stiff neck.
Still, the accident changed Hirscher.
He’s now more calculated about taking risks – even on the race hill.
“I was so lucky,” said Hirscher, who plans to compete in the super-G and giant slalom this weekend at Beaver Creek. “I’m totally recovered, but now I’m thinking more about my whole life, like, ‘What does it mean?’
“I was just driving to a press conference that day, with no thinking about my life. Maybe it’s over there? Not maybe, normally it is over there. I really think different now.”
For instance, the 23-year-old used to give no thought to jumping off a boulder and into a lake.
And now, before he leaps into the unknown depths, he will swim into the water wearing goggles and inspect the bottom, just to see if it’s safe.
He also double- and triple-checks the knots on the rope when he goes rock climbing and makes sure the tires are in fine working order before going dirt biking.
Overly cautious? Perhaps.
It’s just that the car crash provided a stark reminder for Hirscher not to take things too lightly.
“Look, something can happen anytime. I don’t know if the lamps are safe,” said Hirscher, staring up at the lights as he sat on a couch in a hotel lobby. “Maybe it falls on my head and it will be over for me. These are things that can happen every day.
“But I’m not doing stupid things. Maybe risky things, but no stupid things.”
He won’t be holding back on the slopes. That’s not what he means.
After all, his risk-taking is why he won the overall title last season.
Hirscher was so fluid in the technical events all season, winning five slalom events and four more in giant slalom. He also took the GS discipline title away from Ted Ligety of the United States.
In the opening giant slalom competition in Soelden, Austria, last month, Ligety won by 2.75 seconds, with Hirscher more than three seconds behind in third.
“Ted is incredible,” Hirscher said. “It’s always really amazing to ski with him.”
But that time gap <0x2014> a concern?
“He made no mistakes,” Hirscher said. “When you watch the video head-to-head, I’m pretty close to Ted, but in the flat part, three gates before the finish line, I lost (time).”
Any thought it was due to some sort of hesitation was quickly dismissed by Hirscher’s teammate, Klaus Kroell.
“Marcel looks the same,” the downhiller said. “He’s the same guy. He takes all the risks that are possible. I think Marcel is just like last year. He’s good. If you’re not good, you’re not the overall winner. He’s a good guy and one of the best technician guys. Yeah, he likes to risk it all.”
Being from Austria, where skiers are revered, Hirscher became an instant celebrity after last season’s success. He just had no idea how fame would impact his life.
Hirscher can’t go anywhere without being mobbed for autographs or photos. Even when he goes shopping, he’s quickly recognized.
“They catch and want to hold me,” Hirscher said with a look of astonishment. “This is a point where I have to say, ‘I’m a normal person. I’m only on television. I’m normal. Let me be a normal person.’ Sometimes, it can get a bit too much. All in all, it’s good to be an Alpine rock star.”
He is at that, too.
That’s why his accident drew such big headlines around his nation.
He was driving his Audi to an event for the 2013 world championships in Schladming. He had plenty of time to get there, so he kept the speedometer at a reasonable rate, as evidenced by the fact there was a trail of cars behind him.
The police told him that had he not swerved to avoid the collision, the passenger in the other vehicle might have been severely injured <0x2014> or worse.
That rattled Hirscher.
“It wouldn’t have been good,” said Hirscher, who was briefly hospitalized. “I just decided to make a right turn, where there were trees. I was really shocked.”
When he hit the tree, he said the air bag deployed, leaving him with bruises on his chest and face.
Soon after, Hirscher let his fans know he was all right: “I am glad I reacted this way and didn’t risk a frontal crash. It all hurts a bit but nothing too serious happened apart from some bruises and a headache.”
Pat Graham can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/pgraham34