Austria's Gregor Schlierenzauer announced his retirement from the sport of ski jumping last week (Tuesday 21 September). For a star who had shone so brightly during his early days in the sport, the past years had seen the master become challenger as he struggled to overcome injuries, the last of which curtailed his plans to compete in what would have been his fourth Olympics: Beijing 2022.
However, Schlierenzauer leaves behind a legacy that will be difficult to surpass. His 53 individual World Cup wins is a men's world record in the sport, he broke the record for most World Cup wins in a single season when he triumphed in 13 in 2009, and he has four Olympic medals to his name – one gold, one silver and two bronzes.
And in 2018 he jumped as far as any person in history with a 253.5-metre leap that equalled the distance of world record holder Stefan Kraft, only for the mark to be struck from the record books after his hands illegally touched the snow during the landing.
A ski jumping star in the making
Perhaps Schlierenzauer was always destined for a career on the slopes. His uncle, Markus Prock, had won three Olympic medals (two silver, one bronze) in men's luge between 1992 and 2002. The young Schlierenzauer carried on the family sporting tradition, beginning ski jumping at only age eight.
“When I was a child, it was very important to work very hard and very professionally," Schlierenzauer remarked to Reuters when looking back on what set him apart from his peers during his early career. "I only did the things that were important for me. Nowadays it’s definitely the same."
In 2005 at age 15, Schlierenzauer turned pro and the young prodigy was only 16 when he took his first World Cup victory the following year in Lillehammer. It would mark the beginning of a remarkable period that saw Schlierenzauer tear up the record books, including winning his first World Cup title in 2008-2009 before stepping onto the biggest sporting stage of all at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Lighting up the Vancouver Games
Still only 20 years old, Vancouver 2010 represented a golden opportunity for Schlierenzauer to make his mark on the Olympics.
And the young Austrian didn't disappoint.
Alongside Thomas Morgenstern, Wolfgang Loitzl and Andreas Kofler, Schlierenzauer won gold in the men's team large hill event, adding two bronze medals in the individual normal and large hill events.
And while his heroics on the World Cup circuit left many observers expecting Schlierenzauer to triumph in the individual competitions, the ski jumper was anything but disappointed with the colour of his medals.
“Of course I was one of the favourites for the gold medals but for me it was very good to get this experience,” he said.
Schlierenzauer would indeed take his Olympic experience and channel it into more triumphs on the slopes, with highlights that included topping the individual World Cup standings for the second time in the 2012/2013 season.
However, injuries began to take their toll and the once prolific winner failed to triumph in another event on the World Cup circuit until his retirement last week.
A new direction
Schlierenzauer would never get his hands onto that elusive Olympic gold medal. His medals in Vancouver were followed by a team silver at Sochi 2014 and a third appearance at the 2018 Games in PyeongChang where he failed to reach the podium.
However, in a career that burned brightly, if not for the longest time, Schlierenzauer brought ski jumping to a new and exciting level and left behind a legacy as one of the greatest proponents of the sport the world has ever produced.
"As I look back now, I see an emotional journey, where I was able to push boundaries but also have been shown my own limits," he said in a blog post announcing his retirement on his personal website.
"Ski jumping has given me incredible joy and the possibility to acquire experiences and knowledge. It has been a unique and emotionally intense journey and this journey now continues in a new direction.
"The last months have been quite challenging for me, but in a positive way...
"Thank you for everything, stay safe and true to yourself. Knowingly I don't say goodbye; I say See You - wherever, whenever – I'm looking forward to it."
Ski jumping in one minute
- The basics: In competition, jumps are evaluated by the distance travelled and the style of the jump. The men's individual normal hill and large hill competitions consist of two training sessions, a qualifier, and the final. In the men's team event (90m hill), there is a trial round and then two rounds of competition.
- The women's normal hill has no qualifying round and instead proceeds straight to the final, which consists of one trial jump and two rounds of scored jumps.
- The mixed team ski jump competition takes place on the normal hill with a woman-man-woman-man sequence, with the same scoring method as the men’s competition.
- Olympic history: Ski Jumping has been part of the Winter Olympic programme since the first Olympic Winter Games at Chamonix 1924, when the men's large hill was the sole event.
- A normal hill competition was added for the 1964 Innsbruck Games, with the men's team large hill joining the programme in 1988. The women's competition was added in 2014, while the mixed team event is new for 2022.
- Olympic medals by nations: Norway has been the preeminent force in ski jumping, winning 35 medals (including 11 golds).
- Finland is second in the medal rankings with 22 (thanks to their 10 golds), with Austria third with 25 (but only six golds).
- Athlete Olympic medal leaders: Matti Nykanen (FIN) is the most decorated ski jumper in Olympic history, winning four golds and one silver. Simon Ammann (SUI) has also won four gold medals at the Games. Carina Vogt (GER) won the inaugural gold medal in women's ski jumping at Sochi 2014, while Maren Lundby (NOR) is the reigning Olympic champion. Sara Takanashi (JPN), who won bronze in PyeongChang, holds the record for most World Cup wins among all athletes with 60.