KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — In Alpine skiing, there are speed specialists and there are technical specialists, and then there’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch.
As versatile as they come, the German is establishing herself as one of the very best ever — and she owns three Olympic golds to prove it.
Solid in Monday morning’s downhill run, then much more special in the afternoon’s slalom, Hoefl-Riesch won the super-combined — the event intended to measure all-around skill — for the second Winter Games in a row.
Her total time of 2 minutes, 34.62 seconds was 0.40 seconds faster than silver medalist Nicole Hosp of Austria. Hoefl-Riesch was 0.53 better than first-run leader Julia Mancuso, whose bronze was her fourth career Olympic medal in Alpine skiing, twice as many as any other U.S. woman has won.
“Of course, the expectations were really high for today. I was one of the top favorites — or, actually, the top favorite,” Hoefl-Riesch said. “The pressure was really high. I tried to keep cool and easy. … Yeah, you can say that, but it’s not always possible.”
For her, it seems, anything is possible, particularly when it matters most.
This was the sixth Olympic race for the 29-year-old Hoefl-Riesch — there’s been talk that she could retire after the season — and she’s finished inside the top 10 in each one. She missed the 2006 Turin Games after tearing ligaments in both knees the year before, then started making up for that lost opportunity with victories in Vancouver four years ago in the super-combined and slalom. She also is a five-time world championship medalist, won the 2011 overall World Cup title and leads the current standings.
“She won everything,” said Hans Pum, Austria’s Alpine director. “She’s now one of the greatest.”
Only one woman has won four Alpine Olympic golds, Janica Kostelic of Croatia, and Hoefl-Riesch could match that as soon as Wednesday, in the downhill, when she’s sure to be tested by Mancuso again.
“I don’t think about records so much,” said Hoefl-Riesch, who has won three of seven World Cup downhills this season. “If it happens, it’s great.”
She stood fifth after Monday’s downhill, 1.04 seconds behind Mancuso.
Not a problem.
“I know,” Hoefl-Riesch would say later, “she’s not as good as me in slalom.”
That’s certainly true. Mancuso was the super-combined Olympic silver medalist in 2010, but she hadn’t even raced a full-length slalom since January 2013.
“I could definitely risk more, but without having the slalom mileage, it’s really tough to snap off turns and try to make up speed,” Mancuso said. “It’s more just: Survive and get to the finish.”
Hoefl-Riesch pounded her right fist over her heart during the final moments in the start-hut at the top of the steeper-than-usual slalom course that only 22 of 31 starters were able to complete. With artificial lights turned on as thick gray clouds covered the sun, Hoefl-Riesch slammed through the gates, producing a run that was more than 11/2 seconds faster than the American managed.
Standing in the finish area to watch the only woman with a chance to beat her, Hoefl-Riesch saw that she’d won, let her skis drop to the snow, and put her hands on her head.
“She’s not especially spectacular, but, I mean, I have so much respect for her,” said Switzerland’s Dominique Gisin, who was fifth Monday, “because no matter where you are, no matter what discipline, she’s always there.”
Mancuso labored through a tough run-up to Sochi, failing to finish better than seventh in any World Cup race. But she sure knows how to turn things on when it’s the Olympics.
She’s earned at least one medal at each of the last three Winter Games, including a gold in giant slalom at the 2006 Turin Olympics, and a pair of silvers in 2010, when she ceded the spotlight to U.S. teammate Lindsey Vonn.
Perhaps because of the way the past few months have gone, bothered by trouble picking boots that felt comfortable and fighting self-doubt, Mancuso celebrated Monday’s bronze more vigorously than Hoefl-Riesch toasted her own gold.
Mancuso pumped a fist. She jumped in the air. She shimmied on the podium during the flower ceremony.
“The first thing that went through my head is, ‘See?! I CAN do it!’ If you really believe, if you really, really believe, and if you’re really, really positive, and if you just put it out there and go for it all the time, then good things will happen,” Mancuso said. “And that was cool.”