Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Marcel Hirscher: His Eye Surgery and More

A Boston Blickbild Exclusive

Austrian superstar Marcel Hirscher recently had eye surgery. The others have reported about his laser surgery and the improvement in his vision. But our intrepid research team uncovered something else about Marcel. During the 2011-12 season he was accused of not stopping whenever he straddled a gate during a slalom race. It turned out that he really didn't know that he had straddled because he could not see the poles. After the straddling affair, he found a new secret to his success. One of our intrepid reporters caught up with Marcel last weekend. Let's find out what Marcel has to say about his eye surgery, the Straddlegate Affair, and much more. 

BB: Marcel, belated congratulations on your second World Cup overall globe and also for your slalom globe. 
Hirscher:  Thank you.
BB: What are your goals for this coming season?
Hirscher: I would like to win another overall globe and both the slalom and giant slalom globes. It will be difficult because I have a lot of good competition. I would also like to win a medal in Sochi, preferably a gold one. 
BB: Tell our readers about your recent eye surgery.
Hirscher: I have been very nearsighted my whole life. I had laser surgery to improve my vision. 
BB: Ivica Kostelic recently had one of his eyes replaced with a bionic eye. (see this story). Did you have your eyes replaced with bionic ones too?
Hirscher: No. These are my real eyes but they seem bionic to me now. The surgery really improved my vision. It's amazing how much I can see now. I only had 30% vision in one eye and now I can see perfectly out of it. The other eye is just as good.
BB: I'm glad that your surgery was successful and I'm sure the Blickbild's readers feel the same way. Will it be a strange feeling to actually be able to see the slalom poles and giant slalom gates?
Hirscher: Yes, but I'm sure I'll get used to it. I will have the summer and early fall to train and see the gates and poles. The real test of my good vision will be in Soelden this October.
BB: Did you ever consider skiing as a Paralympics athlete because of your vision?
Hirscher: I did at one point. But I really wanted to compete with my normally-sighted counterparts because I knew I was just as good, or better, than they were.
BB: Did you try contact lenses or use goggles that fit over your glasses?
Hirscher: Yes to both. I could not wear contact lenses because they made my eyes water too much. My vision was worse with them than without them because of having to see through tears. I also could not find a pair of goggles that fit perfectly over my glasses. They would fog up, which left me even worse off.
BB: In fact, because of your vision problems, the International Skiing Federation (FIS) granted you permission to use your poles like a white cane to navigate the courses.
Hirscher: That's correct. But that didn't really work out so well because I need my poles for balance. It was very awkward to hold one out in front of me, then bring it back like a normal ski pole. I had a lot of problems with inconsistency at that time due to having to manipulate the poles. It worked okay for me at the junior and Europa Cup levels. But I really ran into problems doing this at the World Cup level.
BB: Now you are one of the most consistent racers in the technical disciplines. Did that consistency come with experience?
Hirscher: Yes and no. Of course some of my consistency came about because of more experience. But  my seeing eye dog gets a lot of the credit too.
BB: Your seeing eye dog?
Hirscher: I got special permission from the FIS to have a seeing eye dog lead me down the courses. Whitey is a special dog who is practically invisible to the spectators. She is very fast and is one of the few dogs who is able to keep up with me on a ski slope.
BB: Do the other men in the World Cup know about Whitey?
Hirscher: Of course they do. Everyone knows about my vision problems. A lot of the guys even bring Whitey treats when we're in the start area. Ted Ligety, Alexis Pinturault, Andre Myhrer, and Felix Neureuther really love to stuff Whitey full of doggie treats before races. I constantly have to tell them to wait until after a race to feed her.
BB: During the 2011-12 season Ivica Kostelic accused you of cheating. He said that you didn't stop when you straddled gates. 
Hirscher: That was the time when I was still using my poles as a white cane, before I got Whitey. I didn't realize that I was straddling because I couldn't tell where the gates were, even with using my poles to guide me. At first Ivica was mad and thought that I was cheating on purpose. He thought that I was being a poor sport because I wasn't stopping when I straddled a gate. But Ivica and I sat down together and I explained my vision problems to him. He was very understanding when he heard about the problems with my eyes and was the one who suggested getting a guide dog.
BB: And the FIS is obviously okay with you using a guide dog. 
Hirscher: Didier Cuche had bionic knee implants and the FIS approved them. When my father and the Austrian Ski Federation trainers made my case to the FIS, the FIS was sympathetic to my plight.
BB: There were ski fans who said that the FIS ruled in your favor over getting a seeing eye dog only because you are Austrian. 
Hirscher: Let's see those fans ski a slalom or giant slalom race at full speed with the vision of Mr Magoo! Whitey does not give me any extra advantage in speed. If she did, I would win every race. She simply leads me around the slalom poles and between the giant slalom gates.
BB: Last season the FIS ruled against Lindsey Vonn's request to race against men and stated that men and women should compete in their own separate races. How did you get around that ruling with Whitey?
Hirscher: That FIS ruling only applies to people. Whitey is a dog, though she likes to think that she is a person.
BB: Do you think that Ms. Vonn will appeal the FIS decision against her by citing Whitey racing against men? 
Hirscher:  Whitey isn't the actual racer. She is a seeing eye dog. There is a difference between Whitey guiding me on a race course and a skier racing by herself. Lindsey Vonn does have a good legal team who could file an appeal with the FIS using Whitey as a precedent. But, from what I heard, she could use a good seeing eye dog to help her find her way to Slovenia.
BB: Did Whitey guide you down the hill at the World Championships in Schladming when you won gold?
Hirscher: Yes. She was with me for the team event, the giant slalom, and the slalom.
BB: Tell our readers about the Adelboden giant slalom. You had a real streak of podium finishes  going but ended up 16th after a big error just before the finish. Was there a problem with Whitey during that race? 
Hirscher: Whitey was sick in Adelboden and I had to use a last minute substitute dog. I think that Ted Ligety gave her too many treats before the race when I wasn't looking. The substitute dog was not trained very well in guiding a skier down a giant slalom course. One of the course workers near the finish line had some Wurst that he was snacking on between racers, which he kept in his pocket. The dog smelled the meat and made a mad dash to the course worker, pulling me behind him. I lost my balance and big lead because of that dog. The Austrian trainers wanted to shoot the dog, but I convinced them not to. Fortunately, Whitey was back for my next race. I have never straddled or missed a gate with Whitey guiding me. I also keep a better eye on her before races to keep my opponents from feeding her.
BB: You are obviously very successful with Whitey. With her as your guide you won two big globes and two small ones. Why would you want to have eye surgery?
Hirscher: One reason is my crazy teammates. People who think that Austrians have no sense of humor have never met Benni Raich or Mario Matt. Benni and Mario would stick "Blind Skier" signs on the back of my speed suit, then use the team radio to say that a blind man wandered onto the course.  Whitey and I would have to dodge people trying to shoo us off the race course. Benni and Mario thought it was funny, but after the third time it was annoying. But the main reason is the upcoming Olympics. While the FIS has let me compete with Whitey in World Cup races, the International Olympic Committee has different regulations. Racers must compete unaided. I knew that I would never have a chance at an Olympic medal skiing alone with my eyes the way they were.
BB: I see. Do you think you will have adjusted to having perfect vision by the Olympics?
Hirscher: As I said earlier, I will train without Whitey this summer and fall. I will also race without her to get used to skiing slalom and GS races with perfect vision. By February I should be ready to win an Olympic medal. It will be a new experience for me to see the poles and gates clearly, but I am confident that I will rise to the challenge.
BB: What will happen to Whitey?
Hirscher: She will still accompany me to races. Whitey has been my faithful companion and will become the Austrian team mascot. Felix, Ted, Alexis and Andre will be able to feed her all of the doggie treats they wish to before races now.
BB: Marcel, I hope that you accomplish all of your goals next season. The whole ski world is looking forward to watching you ski with your new perfect vision.
Hirscher: Thank you. It will be a new experience to see the gates while racing and I am looking forward to it.
BB: And that concludes another Boston Blickbild exclusive interview. 

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