By David Ljunggren
Jan 10 (Reuters) - A year ago, Gregor Schlierenzauer became one of the most successful ski jumpers in history at just 23 but the charismatic Austrian still has a glaring omission from his list of achievements - an individual Olympic gold medal.
Backed by high-profile sponsors such as sports marketing giant Red Bull, he has won a record number of World Cup events, is the defending World Cup champion and away from competition he even runs his own fashion label.
Four years ago, the jovial Austrian arrived at the Vancouver Olympics as World Cup champion and favourite to win the normal and large hill events, yet he could only manage a bronze in each discipline as Swiss veteran Simon Ammann soared to both titles.
Now Schlierenzauer, known to his fans as "Schlieri", is more determined than ever to succeed on the sport's grandest stage.
"It's now definitely the best motivation for me. Of course when you look at my career list then there is just an individual Olympic medal missing and that will be my goal," he told Reuters in an interview.
Even by the standards of a sport often dominated by young athletes, the Austrian is precocious.
Schlierenzauer, born deaf in his left ear, began competing at the age of eight and as a teenager attended a special Austrian boarding school for ski jumpers.
He took part in his first junior event at the age of 14 and won two golds at the world junior championships in February 2006, shortly after turning 16. The next month marked his first start in a World Cup contest, where he finished 24th.
In December that year, still only 16, he won his first World Cup event and has kept on winning ever since.
He first captured the World Cup in 2008-09, setting a new record for the number of wins in a season. He reclaimed the crown last season, along the way breaking the overall record of 46 World Cup wins held by Finland's Matti Nykanen.
He now has more than 50 victories and is in contention to defend his World Cup title despite refusing to jump at a German event in November because the winds were too high.
"It's really nice but there is so much hard work to do to be on top. It's very tough," said Schlierenzauer, praising the support from his team mates, coaches and family, which includes his uncle Markus Prock, a former luger who won two silvers and a bronze at the Olympics.
He laughs when reminded he had told one interviewer he was "a professionally brutal" kind of person.
"When I was a child, it was very important to work very hard and very professionally. I only did the things that were important for me. Nowadays it's definitely the same," he said.
Alexander Pointner, the head coach of the Austrian ski jumping team, told Reuters in a separate interview that Schlierenzauer was phenomenally focused and always looking for new ways to improve himself.
Asked whether Schlierenzauer was easy to work with, Pointner replied simply: "No."
He added: "Really successful athletes are difficult... they want to be better than the best."
After the 2010 Olympics, in a bid to even out the field by making life tougher for lighter athletes, the rules were changed to cut the surface area of skis, make suits tighter and raise the minimum jumping weight.
Schlierenzauer, whose slender build helps him soar through the air, has no issues with the changes but remains opposed to complex new regulations that seek to make allowances for changing winds.
This can mean some athletes jump from different gates during the same competition and are penalised for jumping when wind conditions are deemed too favorable.
"I think it's a little bit too complicated for the spectators... in ski jumping, my belief is that man who flies furthest should win," he said.
Schlierenzauer certainly sounds more relaxed than the tense 20-year-old who snapped "I am not a machine" at reporters when pressed on his failure to win individual gold in Vancouver.
Although he does admit to not enjoying the same thrill from jumping now than he did when younger.
"If I have the motivation and the patience to do my best then yes, I can jump for 10 years. But it could be also possible that I say 'Yes, I need a one year break' and do things I like to do and then come back."
He will not be thinking of any breaks before he tries to make up for what happened in Vancouver, where the Austrians filed an unsuccessful protest against Ammann's boot bindings, which they said gave the Swiss jumper an unfair advantage.
Schlierenzauer - who won a team jumping gold at those games - says he was not disappointed by the two bronzes.
"Of course I was one of the favourites for the gold medals but for me it was very good to get this experience," he said.
Pointner, though, suggests Schlierenzauer put too much pressure on himself in both individual contests.
"Gregor had two chances to think 'Now I have to do something better because Simon's equipment is better... and I want to win and so I have to do something special'. If you think like that in this situation, most of the time you do a little bit worse," he said. (Editing by John O'Brien)
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- Gregor Schlierenzauer