There has been very little said about the dominance of Austrian superstar Marcel Hirscher on the pages of newspapers, magazines, and on the airwaves across the globe that hasn’t already been said.
In truth, the usual adjectives used to describe the world’s best skiers — dominant, commanding, unbelievable, or stunning — don’t have the same effect when trying to explain what the 30-year-old Austrian’s career was. Quite simply, Marcel Hirscher changed ski racing forever.
He won holding on to leads, he won coming from behind, and he won with margins so large in a sport often decided by mere hundredths of a second, so frequently it almost seemed super-human at times. He won with the scrutinizing eyes of the Austrian press watching his every move and he won when nobody thought he could. He simply always found a way to win, and he won a lot.
For a casual fan, it may seem inconceivable for an athlete in the prime of his career and at the undisputed top of his sport to call it quits. For the most part, he remained free from the sting of serious injury and he skirted many of the health issues that tend to force athletes into early retirement. The pull of newfound family life and a longing for normalcy after a 12-year career in the spotlight were too much to resist as Hirscher sat in front of his crystal globes on live television last week and told the world he had crossed his last finish line as an athlete on the World Cup.
“I’m at the pinnacle,” he shared. “I always wanted to quit at a moment where I knew I could still win races.”
For American fans, Hirscher’s goodbye had shades of Daron Rahlves’ own farewell. He retired from the World Cup at 32, following the 2006 Torino Olympics, and was still very much at the top of his game. Rahlves went on to a successful career in the skicross realm, adding an X-Games gold medal and a fourth Olympic appearance at Vancouver 2010 in skicross’ Olympic debut to his resume before stepping away as a competitor for good.
Hirscher, at least at the moment, has no such plans to seek out gold medals anywhere but his trophy case at home.
Hirscher burst on to the international scene in 2007 with a gold medal in the World Junior Championship giant slalom. Complete with a baby face, shaggy haircut, and a raw speed that simply had not been seen before, the 18-year-old Hirscher debuted on the World Cup just over a week later, taking 24th place in the GS in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
His next season on the World Cup can best be described by a word near unthinkable for the Hirscher we know today — inconsistent. The teenager did not finish in nearly half of his World Cup starts in the 2007-2008 season, plagued by mistakes caused by an unrestrained, attacking style that did its best to battle through tough conditions and high start numbers as a rookie on tour. Nevertheless, the young talent persisted and stunned the field by landing on the podium in the final two slaloms of the season in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, and Bormio, Italy, announcing to the world that he could indeed play on the sport’s biggest stage.
In the years since his first podium, Hirscher took that unfettered speed in slalom and GS and turned it into one of the most formidable weapons ever seen on the World Cup. After his first win in Val d’Isere, France, in 2009, his 67 career World Cup wins, three Olympic medals, nine World Championship medals, 12 slalom and giant slalom crystal globes, and an unprecedented eight-straight Overall World Cup titles from 2012-2019 silenced all critics.
Almost dwarfed by the titans of the downhill realm, at well under six feet tall, it is even more impressive to put into perspective all of Hirscher’s accolades — especially his Overall titles — when you take into account his small stature and the fact that, apart from the odd super-G or combined race, he was rarely ever seen outside of his bread-and-butter technical events.
“It is only this morning that I begin to realize what we have done this season and looking back on eight seasons in a row now,” he wrote in a blog post after clinching his eighth Overall title this March. “I’ve seen all the crystal globe photos from over the years in the newspaper today. That really made me laugh. The Marcel of 2012 has changed and does not exist anymore. In all these years I have learned so much and have been through a very positive development.”
Remarkably humble given his accomplishments and, at times, seemingly uncomfortable with his fame in the sporting world, Hirscher had hinted at an early exit from the sport as early as 2014. At the 2017 World Cup Finals in Aspen, Colorado, where he hoisted his sixth Overall title, the Austrian told reporters how much he enjoyed being able to walk down the street or sit outside at lunch and feel just like anyone else looking for the best cheeseburger in town.
In the conversations surrounding the best skier of all time, Hirscher has undoubtedly done enough in his career to have a seat at that table. Ingemar Stenmark and Lindsey Vonn both have more career wins and Mikaela Shiffrin has shattered every mark set before her and is only getting better at a mere 24-years old. Vonn won in every event save for parallel and Stenmark, like Hirscher, raced almost exclusively slalom and GS en-route to his 86 World Cup victories. Whether Hirscher’s accomplishments are more deserving of the title of “greatest of all time” is certainly up for debate, but his ability to adapt to changes in rules, equipment, course setting, and an unrelenting will to take the men’s side of the sport to new heights throughout his career cannot be downplayed. Every time he was presented with a new challenge, Hirscher rose to the occasion and surpassed all expectations.
“Marcel Hirscher pushed the limits beyond what we all thought was possible in skiing,” American GS legend and arch-rival for many World Cup seasons, Ted Ligety, said simply in an Instagram post following the Austrian’s announcement. “He is a true champion.”
Who will emerge as the new face of the men’s World Cup in Hirscher’s absence? Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen and France’s Alexis Pinturault have been waiting in the wings for their time to shine for years and are set for an Overall battle of their own this coming season. Italian speed star Dominik Paris has also shown that he, given the right set of circumstances and a little help from his rivals, could very well spoil the party and become the first speed skier to claim an Overall title in over 10 years. I, for one, am very excited to find out.
One thing is for certain, however: Marcel Hirscher went out at the absolute pinnacle of the sport. The World Cup just won’t feel the same without him.