The idol of a nation
Seemingly destined from a young age to become a skiing champion, Marcel Hirscher has won everything there is to win since making his FIS World Cup debut in 2007. Going out on a high by ending his career after the 2018-2019 season, he is regarded as the greatest Alpine skier in history, the only person to have won the overall FIS World Cup crown eight times in a row. In making his third Winter Games appearance at PyeongChang 2018, he finally got his hands on some Olympic gold, landing the Alpine combined and giant slalom titles.
Destined for greatness
Born in Annaberg-Lungötz, a municipality and ski resort in the Salzburg region, Hirscher was introduced to the slopes at the age of two by his father, the head of a local ski school. It was not long before the youngster was regarded as one of Austrian skiing’s most exciting prospects.
He began to fulfil that promise in winning five medals (three of them gold) at the 2008 FIS Alpine Junior World Ski Championships. In 2010, the then 20-year-old made his Olympic debut in Vancouver, where he finished fourth in the giant slalom and fifth in the slalom.
Crystal globe collector
Hirscher recorded his first FIS Alpine Ski World Cup victories in slalom and giant slalom in the 2010/11 campaign. In the years that followed, he secured his place in skiing history by winning the overall World Cup crown seven times in a row between 2012 and 2018. In that time he collected five small crystal globes in the slalom and another five in the giant slalom.
Silver in Sochi
The Austrian’s bid for Olympic gold at Sochi 2014 got off to a disappointing start when he came home fourth in the giant slalom, an event won by the USA’s Ted Ligety, one of his fiercest rivals. Another opportunity to top the podium came Hirscher’s way in the slalom on the final day of competition. His chance looked to have gone when he placed ninth on the opening run, 1.28 seconds behind leader Matt.
Seemingly out of contention, Hirscher found a new gear on the second run, negotiating an extremely challenging course to post the best time and claim the silver, just 0.28 seconds behind his fellow Austrian.
“Thank goodness that the course was so tricky during the second run, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to come back,” he said afterwards. Remarking on the strenuous test faced by the skiers, he added: “We’re looking for an Olympic champion, not a school champion.”
Staying in the groove
Though Hirscher found Olympic gold elusive at that stage of his career, the same did not apply at the FIS Alpine Ski World Championships. After winning slalom and team event golds in front of his own fans in Schladming (AUT) in 2013, he collected combined and team event titles at Vail/Beaver Creek (USA) in 2015 and then did the slalom/giant slalom double in St Moritz (SUI) two years later, becoming the first skier to achieve the feat since Italian great Alberto Tomba in Sierra Nevada (ESP) in 1996.
A powerful technician capable of generating great speed between the gates, the Austrian racked up win after win in his two favourite events on the World Cup scene, sometimes by massive margins, such as the 3.28 seconds that separated him and his closest challenger in the giant slalom in Garmisch (GER) on 1 March 2015.
A crowning moment
Hirscher endured an injury setback as he prepared for his next Olympic challenge, fracturing his left ankle in training on 17 August 2017, which left him fearing the worst and contemplating a whole winter on the sidelines.
He made a rapid recovery, however, and was back in action in the slalom in Levi (FIN) on 12 November, where he lay fourth at the halfway stage before finishing 17th overall.
After regaining his best form, the Austrian great ended his wait for Olympic gold in the Alpine combined at PyeongChang 2018. Lying seventh following an excellent downhill, a run that he described as probably the best of his career, he climbed to the top of the leaderboard in the slalom leg to win the medal he had always craved.
“People always said to me, ‘Great career, but you don’t have an Olympic gold’. It’s perfect, incredible,” he commented afterwards. “Everyone’s been expecting this in Austria, for me to win at least one gold. I won’t have to listen to people asking me if I thought my career was perfect without winning at the Games. There’ll be no more talk of that now.”
No sooner had one Olympic title come Hirscher’s way than a second arrived, in the giant slalom a few days later, when he won by a comfortable distance over Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen and France’s Alexis Pinturault. His hopes of a legendary Olympic hat-trick ended on the first run of the slalom, however, when he unexpectedly skied out.
A record-breaking season
Hirscher’s Olympic double came in a stunning season in which he recorded 13 World Cup victories to equal the joint all-time record set by Ingemar Stenmark in 1979 and Hermann Maier in 2001, with seven of those wins coming in the slalom and the remaining six in the giant. His remarkable tally for the season took him up to 58 career wins, with only Stenmark ahead of him – among male skiers – on 86. It also brought him a seventh consecutive big crystal globe, a haul that no other skier – male or female – has ever achieved.
“Thirteen wins? I didn’t think it was possible to get that many in only two events,” he said at the end of his stunning winter. “It’s been a crazy season, though. When I broke my ankle I asked myself: is this the end of my career? No. But is my season over? Maybe. Am I going to miss the Games? Perhaps. There was one thing for certain, though: there was no chance of me topping the overall standings. And yet here we are. It’s incredible.
People often ask me why I’ve just had the best season of my career. The answer’s simple: a long break, a lot of drills, and a passion for sport that continues to grow.”
Going out on a high
Hirscher spent another season at the top during the winter of 2018-2019. In the World Cup, he won five slalom and three giant slalom titles to take his total number of wins to 67, and when he did not win, he was almost always on the podium in these two disciplines... And thus he acquired his eighth consecutive overall World Cup title, to go with his sixth slalom and giant slalom globes, making 20 crystal trophies in all: a record shared only with America’s Lindsey Vonn.
During this new fantastic winter season, the Austrian champion further enhanced his legendary status at the World Championships held in February in Åre (Sweden). Beaten by Henrik Kristoffersen in the giant slalom, he won his third consecutive slalom title, becoming the only man to do so since Ingemar Stenmark in 1978, 1980 and 1982, and sharing the record of seven World Championship gold medals with his glorious compatriot, Toni Sailer.
He ended his season expressing doubts about whether he would continue his career, as he was feeling “very tired”. Then on 4 September 2019, live on Austrian television, seated on a stool in front of a display case containing all his crystal globes, he announced that he was retiring from competition skiing at the age of 30. The whole skiing world and all his rivals, past and present, paid tribute to him on social media. The White Circus will go on without him, heading towards the Games in Beijing in 2022, and he leaves a huge gap. His 12 seasons at the height of his powers will ensure him a prominent place in the history of both Alpine skiing and sport in general.