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Marcel Hirscher retired from skiing at the top. He's back to race for a country with no mountains

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FILE - Austria's Marcel Hirscher celebrates on the podium after winning an alpine ski, men's World Cup slalom in Zagreb, Croatia, Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019. Marcel Hirscher, one of the most successful ski racers of all time, is planning to return next season after five years in retirement. And the record eight-time overall World Cup champion is going to compete for the Netherlands — his mother's country — instead of his native Austria. (AP Photo/Giovanni Auletta, File)

Marcel Hirscher, one of the most successful ski racers of all time, is planning to return next season after five years in retirement. And the record eight-time overall World Cup champion is going to compete for the Netherlands — his mother’s country — instead of his native Austria.

The Austrian winter sports federation, known as the OSV, announced Wednesday that it had released the 35-year-old Hirscher and endorsed his nation change.

“For people asking, why are you doing this, for me it’s clear — because the joy of skiing never left, it’s just so much fun for me,” Hirscher said on Instagram.

While there have been Dutch skiers who have competed on the elite level, never has the Netherlands — a country with no mountains — had a top racer anywhere near Hirscher’s caliber.

The nation change allows Hirscher to compete on Van Deer skis — the brand he helped create with Red Bull, his sponsor. Van Deer is not on the list of brands approved for use by the Austrian federation.

“It was better and easier for the Dutch federation to put this project into practice,” Hirscher said. “For me personally it was important not to take any resources from young athletes in Austria.”

The Austrian federation said it “tried very hard to offer Marcel the best possible and individual conditions." The OSV added, "We very much regret his decision to request a change of nation to the Dutch Ski Association but in the end we supported it.”

Hirscher was born and raised in Austria to an Austrian father and a Dutch mother, Sylvia. His father, Ferdinand, coached him throughout his career.

Patrick Riml, Red Bull's ski racing director, said that Hirscher plans to enter lower-level races in New Zealand in August to get the necessary points to return to the World Cup circuit and that his main aim is to compete at next season’s world championships in Saalbach-Hinterglemm, Austria.

“He’s been training the whole season. He’s been on snow pretty much every day of the winter testing his equipment,” Riml said, adding that Hirscher plans to compete in both slalom and giant slalom.

Hirscher retired in 2019 following his record eighth straight overall World Cup title. Marc Girardelli is next on the men's list with five overall titles. Annemarie Moser-Pröll tops the women's list with six overall trophies, followed by Mikaela Shiffrin with five and Lindsey Vonn with four.

In terms of World Cup race wins, Hirscher's 67 victories are second behind men’s record holder Ingemar Stenmark’s 86. Shiffrin holds the overall record with 97 wins.

So can Hirscher still compete at the highest level?

“He was amazing when he was racing, he was the best one out there,” Riml told The Associated Press. “Marcel is Marcel.”

French skier Victor Muffat-Jeandet, who is also 35 and still competes, told L’Equipe: “It won’t be easy to win. The sport has evolved in five years.”

Hirscher’s return follows that of another Red Bull athlete, Lucas Braathen, who is switching from Norway to Brazil — his mother’s home nation.

“I’ve spent hours studying your performance throughout my career, attempting to integrate bits and pieces into my own movement patterns,” Braathen wrote Hirscher on Instagram. “There is one thing I really wish I had the chance to do — race against you. It’s an honor to have you back, and I can’t wait to ski with you.”

Skiers must comply with International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) rules to change national eligibility — though the process is made easier if the team they are leaving agrees to the move.

“Taking the sport to a whole new level of off-season entertainment,” Aksel Lund Svindal, another former overall World Cup winner, wrote on Instagram. “It seems like we have a transfer market in ski racing.”

Riml said there was no shared planning or communication between Hirscher and Braathen, and noted that Hirscher has not formally joined the Dutch association yet.

"The last couple of years, he was always thinking about it,” Riml said. “Then he decided on very, very short notice that he really wants to do this. Then we got to work trying to get all the documentations in place.”

Might Hirscher extend his comeback to the Milan-Cortina Olympics in 2026? He won two golds at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games and a bronze at the 2014 Sochi Games.

“It’s hard to predict anything right now,” Riml said. “It’s a step by step process. … Right now the goal is this season. But then then you never know, right?”

Of the 147 medals that the Netherlands — which excels in speedskating — has won at the Winter Olympics, nearly all of them have come on ice. Only one was won on snow: Nicolien Sauerbreij’s gold in parallel giant slalom snowboarding in 2010.

“Marcel is a global icon and an inspiration for all skiers and winter sports enthusiasts in the Netherlands,” Dutch skiing association general director Frits Avis said. "We hope that this will boost interest and enthusiasm for winter sports in our already winter sports-crazy country.”

Riml stepped down as the U.S. Ski Team’s Alpine director a few months ago but remains a consultant for the Americans.

“This was not in the plan when it came up,” Riml said of having both Hirscher and Braathen to guide. “But it’s very exciting for the sport in general.”

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AP Sports Writer Ciaran Fahey in Berlin contributed to this report.

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AP skiing: https://apnews.com/hub/alpine-skiing

Andrew Dampf, The Associated Press




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