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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