UPDATED: Marit Bjørgen, who just became the most-winning Winter Olympian of all time, has decided to retire from professional cross-country skiing while she’s still the world’s reigning ski queen. She’ll ski her last race on Saturday in the Norwegian championships now underway in Alta.
She was smiling and joked with reporters before another race on Friday, but told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that “I feel that I don’t have the motivation that’s needed to give 100 percent for another season, and therefore I’ve chosen to step down.”
Bjørgen, at an age of 38, is definitely leaving while still on top of her sport. She won even more gold medals at the recent Winter Olympics in South Korea and was applauded by the entire Olympic stadium at the closing ceremonies, for having won more Olympic medals over the course of her career than any other athlete, man or woman.
Her decision follows biathlon star Ole Einar Bjørndalen’s tearful announcement earlier this week that he also was reluctantly retiring, at an age of 42. He had previously held the Winter Olympic medal record that Bjørgen won away from him, and had resisted retiring for years. After a disappointing final season during which he didn’t even qualify for the Olympic team, Bjørndalen called it quits.
Bjørgen has chosen to leave while still a champion, a move that likely will also leave her remembered as a winner. Over the course of her career, she has won 18 World Championships in addition to her eight Olympic gold medals. She’s also won 141 World Cup races and been on the winners’ podium 184 times after taking part in 303 World Cup events.
She had said after the recent Olympics that she would spend the Easter holidays deciding whether to go for another season. Bjørgen, who had her first child two years ago and has also said she wants more time with little Marius, indicated Friday morning that her Easter training was mediocre, so she didn’t know how she’d do in the national championships this weekend. “I’m not sure about my speed from the start,” she told NRK with a laugh. “I only have a diesel motor.”
Tributes pouring in
Vidar Løfshus, head of Norway’s national skiing teams, noted that Bjørgen’s role has been much bigger than just as an athlete. “She has been the captain of the team, has always stood up for the women, and for me she’s been a good sparring partner,” Løfshus told NRK, adding with a smile that “now I’ll have one less coach on my team. We have a lot of good coaches in the skiing federation, but look at Marit, who has won so many medals. She knows more about about cross-country skiing than all of us together.”
Løfshus made it clear he didn’t think he was losing Bjørgen entirely: “We can’t let such a woman slip out the back door. She’ll get some time to catch her breath and enjoy time with Marius and her partner (former pro-skier Fred Børre Lundberg). Then I know she’ll continue to contribute again.”
Bjørgen herself, who noted she’s spent “more than half my life” skiing professionally, said she also wouldn’t be disappearing from the sport. Tributes, meanwhile, began pouring in immediately, from other athletes, top politicians and even NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, who was prime minister in Norway when Bjørgen won several World Championships in Oslo in 2011: “Marit Bjørgen, you have inspired and been an idol. You have made us jump for joy and scream with excitement. You have been an outstanding team player and delivered tremendous results. And up through it all, you have remained a human being. Thanks!”
Roar Hjelmeset, coach of the women’s national ski team, said Bjørgen had given official notice that she would no longer race for the team after this season. “She’s the person in Norwegian skiing who has perhaps meant the most,” Hjelmeset told NRK. “She’s a fantastic skier. There are only good things to say about Marit Bjørgen.”