Like his talent, Hirscher's retirement transcends the sport he dominated
"Marcel Hirscher walks away at the very peak of his powers, the undisputed leader in his field, and one of the greatest of all time, how many athletes are able to say that?" As the Austrian bids farewell to a sport he has made his own, Pete Sharland pays tribute to an athlete who re-wrote the record books.
Every individual has their own path to take.
In a world where we think we know more and more about the stars we idolise and the lives they lead, it is more important than ever to take a step back and remember that we have no idea what they’re going through.
It may seem crazy to some that a 30-year-old at the very top of their field could walk away from all of it, but to Marcel Hirscher it makes perfect sense, and that is exactly what he did on Wednesday evening - in front of his eight Crystal Globes no less.
“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," he told reporters.
" 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."
“I always wanted to quit at a moment where I knew I could still win races."
When a passion becomes a job
Should this really come as such a shock?
There have been flirtations, as far as back as 2014 in fact, but after Sochi his passion seemed renewed and he went on to enjoy a truly remarkable four-year period that cemented his status as a legend of the sport. Yet still doubts remained, and even this season he hinted that he may walk away for good.
Far across the pond in Indianapolis there is a man who has made a similarly ground-breaking decision to Hirscher, even if there are very few people who will have been affected by both of their choices.
At the age of 29 Andrew Luck, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, decided to retire weeks before the season started. Hirscher hasn’t suffered the injuries that Luck has, few sportspeople have, and nor has Luck achieved the level of success Hirscher has, but there is a familiar theme.
When your passion becomes your job it can become easy for that passion to die out. The monotony can quickly become a grind that you are no longer willing to undertake.
Both Luck and Hirscher recently had their first child, both have spoken of how that gave them a new sense of perspective, and when you have earned the money they have why wouldn’t you want to spend as much time as possible with your family?
Marcel HirscherGetty Images
The greatest ever?
And while Hirscher can now spend his time being a father and a husband, it falls to us to eulogise about and wilfully lust over a skier who has a legitimate case to being the best ever.
Here are Hirscher’s stats, because they are worth reiterating:
- Eight overall World Cup Crystal Globes (two more than any other skier in history)
- 67 World Cup wins (behind only Ingemar Stenmark and Lindsey Vonn)
- Seven World Championship gold medals (second only to Christl Cranz in history)
- Two Olympic gold medals
An astonishing haul for a 30-year-old. In fact it’s astonishing full stop.
And even though the numbers are impressive, Hirscher will be remembered more so for his style, that relentless aggression that set him ahead of the pack for so long.
A bulkier skier than most, Hirscher’s unique combination of power and agility allowed him to dominate across disciplines and take risks many thought impossible.
Eurosport expert and former Downhill skier Finlay Mickel believes it was these gifts that separated Hirscher from his peers.
“He's so exciting to watch because he takes such huge risks and he's able to pull out of mistakes he's made and because he's taking such huge risks he has this innate belief that he is going to get it done and often he does get it done," Mickel says.
"It's so rare that you see him make a mistake that actually costs him, yes he makes mistakes but that's why everyone is so excited by him.
" He's more powerful on the skis, he generates more speed than anybody else and the recoveries he has to do to stay on the course are phenomenal."
“For the last few years it's almost become the expectation that he will take these levels of risk and we know what we're going to see, we're going to see something wild and exciting and breathtaking in a way we've not seen ski racing for many years.”
Of course an issue that all sports have to wrestle with is how you compare different generations, when modern technology and science has such an impact.
"It's like anything when you compare era on era, it's so difficult to say the greatest of all time,” Mickel adds.
“But for his generation 100% he has been our greatest champion and he has to rank himself up in the very top two or three of all-time.”
Fellow Eurosport expert and former alpine skier Ed Drake agrees.
“Hirscher was the greatest skier of his generation and one of the greatest of all time,” Drake says.
“Always the one to watch whenever he pulled on his race bib. You couldn’t help watching from the edge of your seat!”
The new generation
But what of the next generation? The young guys who have desperately sought a way to topple the master.
Henrik Kristoffersen, whose duels with Hirscher last season were true box-office, seems best placed to step up and both Mickel and Drake have highlighted the Norwegian, along with France’s Alexis Pinturault.
“Short term his main rivals Alexis Pinturault and Henrik Kristoffersen won’t be sad to see the back of Marcel! I think Pinturault is going to be hard to stop this winter on two and maybe even three fronts!” says Drake.
"Henrik has gone to all ends of the earth in order to better himself and I've always thought that he's the next man but he needs to wait until Hirscher retires so it looks like he will be the next one,” adds Mickel
"Pinturault will definitely see himself for the overall. He's always had that intrigue to be a multi-discipline skier.
“Kristoffersen hasn't really pushed into the Super-G yet but it's so common in the sport that we see the younger guys being technical experts at first and then pushing into Super-G and Downhill as they get older, wiser and their bodies don't move quick enough for Slalom.
"Kristoffersen has a slighter build than Hirscher so it'd be a harder thing for him to come up and do what Hirscher did, winning in Super-G. I wouldn’t expect that from Kristoffersen but he stands out as the next one and for the overall it'll be him and Pinturault fighting against each other.”
And further into the future Drake is particularly excited about 21-year-old Swiss racer Marco Odermatt.
“I think it’s the perfect opportunity for Marco Odermatt to really step up.
" A young guy who found his feet but not his consistency, whether or not that is comes in this coming season, it might be a season too early but I expect to see him become the ‘new Hirscher’ if that is even possible! "
“Hirscher’s don’t come along in every generation!”
Losing an athlete of the calibre of Hirscher, someone who transcended his sport, will be a real blow for skiing, as Drake pointed out Hirscher is truly generational, the rarest of talents.
However, the sort of void Hirscher will leave is exactly the type of opportunity for someone like Kristoffersen or Pinturault. It’s an incredible chance to cement your own legacy and take ownership of the sport.
Of course it shouldn’t be forgotten either that the women’s circuit is in a fantastically healthy state, led by the imperious Mikaela Shiffrin who could write a legacy capable of surpassing that of Hirscher.
And whilst it is unlikely to have been at the forefront of his mind when making his decision, Hirscher must surely take solace in the fact that there is such an exciting young generation coming through.
What may well have played on Hirscher’s mind is watching the way Vonn and fellow alpine legend Aksel Lund Svindal had to bow out, riddled with injuries and shadows of their former selves.
Hirscher walks away at the very peak of his powers, the undisputed leader in his field, and one of the greatest of all time, how many athletes are able to say that?
When a sport dominates your life in such a way taking back control is something that most people can only dream or joke about, Hirscher should be commended for what he has done.
And he will be forever remembered as a skier who changed the way we view the sport.