Hirscher takes big 1st-run lead in World Cup slalom

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              Austria's Marcel Hirscher speeds down the course during a ski World Cup men's Slalom race, in Saalbach-Hinterglemm, Austria, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Gabriele Facciotti)
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SAALBACH-HINTERGLEMM, Austria (AP) — Marcel Hirscher returned to a hill where he raced as a kid to become the most successful Austrian skier of all time.

The seven-time overall champion won a World Cup slalom in his native province of Salzburg on Thursday for his 63rd career victory, overtaking Annemarie Moser-Proell, who had 62 wins when she retired in 1980.

“As a kid I have competed in regional races on this hill. The course was just a bit more to the right,” Hirscher said. “These are great memories. The circle closes here.”

Only Ingemar Stenmark (86) and Lindsey Vonn (82) have won more World Cup races.

Moser-Proell was full of praise for the new Austrian record-holder.

“We have never seen such a perfect ski racer before,” she told Austrian broadcaster ORF. “When I see Marcel now, I am amazed that I achieved something similar back then. But you can’t really compare the two eras. Everything is much more professional nowadays.”

Defying difficult course conditions, Hirscher held on to a big first-run lead to finish 0.38 seconds ahead of Loic Meillard of Switzerland, who was only 12th after the opening run and claimed his second podium in two days.

Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway was 0.47 behind in third.

“I would have been happy with a top-10 result and I can’t believe I am on the podium for two days in a row,” said Meillard, also runner-up in Wednesday’s GS. “To be on a podium with Marcel and Henrik is truly something special.”

It was the fourth straight win in the discipline for Hirscher, who has won nine of the last 10 World Cup slaloms.

“It sounds amazing but it is very surreal,” Hirscher said about his 63rd win. “There will be a time when I can really enjoy this but for the moment it is really amazing to have another victory, in one of the hardest slalom races I have ever skied in.”

Many racers struggled on the Schneekristall course, which had patches of weak snow in the icy top layer on the lower part of the slope. The second run had to be delayed for 15 minutes to give organizers more time to harden the surface with water and salt.

Kristoffersen called it “the worst conditions I have skied on in my World Cup career.”

“It was really on the limit. It was tough, incredible,” said the Norwegian, who still led Meillard by eight tenths at the final split but trailed the Swiss skier by 0.09 at the finish.

“Normally that would not happen,” Kristoffersen said.

Hirscher started his final run with an advantage of 2.13 seconds over then leader Meillard, allowing him to take a conservative approach.

“On the steep part, you just have to make sure that you come down. It was hardly skiable,” Hirscher said. “All in all it was a good and solid performance.”

Hirscher’s teammate, Michael Matt, who was second after the opening run, dropped to fifth after making mistakes and posting only the 24th fastest time in his final run.

Also, Felix Neureuther dropped from fourth to 27th in his first slalom race in 13 months. The German missed most of last season after tearing the ACL in his left knee, and had his comeback delayed by a broken thumb and a concussion.

The race replaced a slalom which was canceled in France last week. The men’s World Cup continues with another slalom in the Italian resort of Madonna Di Campiglio on Saturday.