Marcel Hirscher retires atop Alpine skiing rather than chase record

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If Marcel Hirscher read the newspapers before his Olympic debut in 2010, he may have seen a front-page headline, “Das Debakel,” after none of his older Austrian teammates finished in the top 10 of the Vancouver Winter Games super-G.

“Failure No. 1, 2, 3, 4,” captioned photos of each of the skiers.

Hirscher, then 20 and the youngest Austrian male Olympic Alpiner in 18 years, started the giant slalom days later and finished fourth. He missed a medal by eight hundredths of a second. No Austrian man made an Alpine podium at an Olympics for the first time since 1936, but Hirscher was a glimmer of a hope.

Over the next decade, Hirscher put together one of the standout resumes in the sport’s history: a record eight World Cup overall titles (consecutive), world titles in the slalom, giant slalom and super combined and, under mounting pressure in PyeongChang, his first two Olympic gold medals.

They would be his last Olympics, too. Hirscher revealed his retirement on Austrian primetime TV on Wednesday, news pegged by media for nearly a week since the press conference was announced.

“It’s not a major surprise anymore,” Hirscher said in front of eight crystal globes signifying those eight overall titles, noting he decided in late August. “The last two weeks have seen a lot of turbulence, but I feel very clearly and there were many reasons. … I’m at the pinnacle. My body is a bit tired after 12 years. It’s a very decisive argument. And the fact, of course, that I wanted to leave as a champion.”

At 30, he goes out on top of the sport. Hirscher is coming off yet another World Cup overall title, plus season titles in the slalom and giant slalom. He won nine races last season (only Mikaela Shiffrin won more) to up his career World Cup victories total to 67.

“I always wanted to quit at a moment where I knew I could still win races,” he said, noting wanting to retire while still healthy. “Even in 2013 [after winning his first world championship], I felt it’s as good a day to stop as any. It doesn’t get any better, but then I carried on.”

The World Cup wins record of 86, held by Swede Ingemar Stenmark, is well-known to U.S. ski fans. Lindsey Vonn risked her long-term health to pursue the mark before calling it quits last season with 82 wins, four years older than Hirscher.

Hirscher, a technical specialist with an injury history much shorter than the speed racer Vonn, had averaged nine wins per season over the last five years. Had he kept up something close to that pace, he would have passed Stenmark well before the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

Instead, he made a decision rare in sport: He walked away during his peak, passing up the chance to become the greatest of all time (by that statistical measure, though some may argue the eight overall crowns make a strong argument). It’s not that surprising. For years, Hirscher hinted at early retirement.

He left his future up in the air after each World Cup season, but the assumption was always that he would continue. Who leaves the sport in their 20s without major injury or a dip in results?

But Hirscher, whose father ran a ski school and whose mother was a ski instructor, was never one for the frenzy around Austrian racers.

“The only thing I can do next season is [lose],” Hirscher, who equated his celebrity in Austria to that of Tom Brady in the U.S., said going into the 2018 Olympic season. “Because if I’m finishing second, in the Austrian press it would be a disaster. It is hard to manage with this pressure.”

He relished eating a cheeseburger unnoticed in Aspen, Colo. In offseasons, he preferred dirt-biking, motocross, whitewater kayaking and rock climbing. Now he is married with a 10-month-old son.

“I simply believe that I was extremely lucky to have the knees as a professional athlete after so many years I can go home without having any after-effects,” he said Wednesday. “It was always important to catch the moment where I thought, I want to play football with my little boy, climb the mountains or do things I couldn’t if I had any serious injury.”

Hirscher, who was the slalom favorite in Sochi but took silver, finished his Olympic career by delivering big time in PyeongChang.

He won his first event, the combined, by posting the fastest slalom run by 1.02 seconds. Five days later, he won his second race, the giant slalom, by 1.27 seconds (greater than the margin separating second from ninth). Hirscher, who had always expressed content without an Olympic gold medal, said all the pressure had gone away now that he had two.

“Win so many races, so many world championship titles, all the time, always the same question, where is the Olympic gold medal?” he said in PyeongChang. “Now it is finally here. If you have a perfect career, you need this one Olympic gold medal.”

Asked to name his successors, Hirscher noted slalom and giant slalom rivals Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway and Alexis Pinturault of France.

“Maybe it can be someone, an athlete we have never heard of before,” he said. “If I think back to the beginning of myself, nobody was expecting that I’m going to win the overall World Cup. Not so early, no so fast, not so often.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Dominik Paris, world champion skier, suffers season-ending injury

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Italian Dominik Paris, the reigning world champion in the super-G, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a training crash Tuesday ahead of this weekend’s speed races in Kitzbuehel, Austria.

Paris crashed in super-G training not far from the hallowed World Cup venue, slipping into a curve and damaging his right knee. He also suffered a fibula microfracture, according to the Italian federation.

“My season ends here,” he said, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS). “Unfortunately while I was sliding, the inside ski caught too much and the ligament broke. There is not much to add. In the next few days we will evaluate, together with the medical staff, how to proceed.”

Paris won his third Hahnenkamm downhill title last year and was one of the favorites for Saturday’s downhill, the most prestigious annual race in the sport. NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage for “Snow Pass” subscribers at 5:30 a.m. ET.

Paris, 30, won a pair of downhills in Bormio in December among five total podiums this season.

In his absence, Swiss Beat Feuz and German Thomas Dressen lead the podium contenders.

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It’s Nathan Chen’s time at nationals for a feat 32 years in the making

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Nathan Chen can join Brian Boitano in U.S. figure skating history this week, a decade after holding Boitano in the palm of his hands with a program set to music from “Kung Fu Panda.”

Chen seeks a fourth straight national title in Greensboro, N.C. He would be the seventh man to do so since World War II. Five of the previous six won Olympic titles — Dick Button, Hayes Jenkins, David Jenkins, Scott Hamilton and, most recently, Brian Boitano from 1985-88.

Boitano remembered the first time he met Chen. He and Kristi Yamaguchi were compelled to leave their seats to find the teeny, tiny wunderkind who performed that program to the 2008 DreamWorks film.

“He was taking off his skates, and he probably came up to our waist,” Boitano said. “We knew when we saw him back then that he was going to be something special. He was really quiet. He’s still very quiet.”

In an interview last week, Chen focused on the present — coming back from a two-week cold or flu bug — rather than the perspective.

“I don’t like to typically think about that,” Chen said when asked about his streak. “It’s just different [from year to year]. It’s not really necessarily easier or harder.”

It is also different from previous eras. The last five men to win four in a row did it all in one Olympic cycle, then stepped away from competition after the Winter Games. That was back when turning professional meant the end of an Olympic career.

“It was kind of the norm back then,” Hamilton said. “After that it was kind of back and forth a lot [until Chen]. The business of skating changed so skaters could stay in a lot more, a lot longer. With all the money they brought in, they were able to prevent skaters from turning professional. So that brought in a different approach to nationals.”

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Both Hamilton and six-time (non-consecutive) U.S. champion Todd Eldredge could think of just one name to compare Chen’s dominance in the history of U.S. men’s skating: Button, who won the first seven national titles after World War II, plus two Olympic golds.

Button earned national and world titles as a Harvard student. Chen is on a two-season win streak while majoring in statistics and data science at Yale. Button was the first skater to land a double Axel and a triple jump of any kind. Chen was the first to land six quads in one free skate.

Eldredge coaches skaters at the same rink where Chen trains when Chen visits his Southern California-based coach Rafael Arutunian. He is awed by watching Chen working out. Though Eldredge owns more national titles, he never felt the massive favorite status that accompanies Chen.

Eldredge competed in the post-Hamilton/Boitano era, when national champions began competing over multiple Olympic cycles. Eldredge ebbed and flowed from his first national title in 1990, when compulsory figures were still around, to 2002, when he defeated Timothy Goebel, then known as the Quad King.

“Physically, the demands of the sport take their toll on your body,” Eldredge said. “It’s hard to maintain that same level for that length of period of time.

“[In] 12 years [since Chen’s first national title], when he’s 29 years old, is he going to be able to continue to sustain that?”

All of the recent top U.S. men competed in multiple Olympic cycles. The last multiple national champion was Jeremy Abbott, who earned two titles each in two different Olympic cycles. Abbott finished his career in a third Olympic cycle, placing fifth at the 2015 U.S. Championships. Abbott didn’t remember that Chen made his senior nationals debut that year, finishing eighth at age 15.

“For me, winning the third and the fourth [titles] were harder because I started thinking about winning,” Abbott said. “After the second one, I was heading into a new quad and I was two-time U.S. champion. Then my focus was, oh, I’m expected to win. So that was a harder mental game rather than just focusing on making an Olympic team. The expectation now that I’ve done this twice in a row, I’m expected to win again and again and again.”

Abbott and Chen came up in the era of the points-based judging system instituted in 2004.

“Now with the way the scoring system is very different [from the old 6.0], cumulative points, if you have a bad day as a national champion, that’s it. You can’t get the points,” Eldredge said. “[In previous eras], if a certain skater was, I’ll say politically supposed to be the champion, you got a higher score, and rightfully so in most cases.”

Chen has the benefit of going into competitions knowing the kind of advantage he has in base value points from his jumping arsenal. He won last year’s national title by 58 points. This international season, he is 80 points clear of the next-highest-ranked U.S. man, Jason Brown.

“I don’t think that the try-to-push technique is necessarily my goal here,” at nationals, Chen said. “Hopefully just to maintain my body, maintain my health and try to prepare myself for the second half of the season.”

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