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Tuesday, January 8, 2002
Maier made winning look painful

By Jeff Merron and Eric Neel
Special to

Great skiers are somewhat reckless. They surrender control of their bodies to the whims of the mountain, always flying just this side of trouble. Exhibit A: Austria's Hermann Maier.

Hermann Maier
Hermann Maier isn't afraid to push the envelope with his moves on the slopes.
The skiing world knew of Maier's greatness before he arrived at Nagano, Japan, for the 1998 Winter Olympics. He'd dominated the alpine World Cup circuit in the months leading up to the Games, and was a favorite to medal in the downhill, super-G, and giant slalom events.

Two-time Olympic champion Alberto Tomba said at the time: "It will be difficult to beat Maier in Nagano. He is so full of confidence he can take all the risks he wants."

Maier loved to ski on the edge. He seemed fearless, and his rivals knew him to be relentless in pursuit of faster times.

Then came the sturtz -- the crash. During the downhill competition, the first of the Alpine events at Nagano, Maier lost an edge and went tumbling, ass over teakettle, down the hill, eventually ending up in a heap near the retaining web at the course's edge. It was a wild, amazing, cartoonish crash. The kind of crash made all the more astonishing when Maier dusted himself off and skied away. Hampton Sides in Outside magazine described it this way: "Maier's sturtz in Nagano was more than just a spectacular wipeout. It was an anarchic burst of kinesis that refreshed our understanding of why alpine skiing is so exciting to watch in the first place: the possibility of pure, white-knuckled calamity, the chaos lurking just behind the scrim of mastery and finesse."

After laying quietly in the snow for a few anxious minutes, he stood up, clicked himself into his skis and headed down the mountain.

If he had never raced in another Olympic event, the crash alone would have been enough to secure his place in our collective memory. But Maier was not content with being a spectacular footnote, and he wasn't satisfied with simply surviving.

Fellow Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger dubbed him "The Herminator," but other skiers on tour called Maier "The Monster" because he attacked the hill as ferociously as anyone they'd ever seen, always pushing the envelope of safety, always ready for the next challenge. His will to win seemed otherworldly.

"He is for sure not one of us," Austrian teammate Hans Knauss told Outside magazine. "He is on another planet," said another teammate.

Wherever he was from, Maier knew where he was going: back down the hill in the Olympic super-G competition. Just 72 hours after the sturtz, he obliterated the field by more than half a second to win the gold medal.

Three days later, he went out and recorded the fastest times in each run of the giant slalom, winning gold again.

After his Olympic triumph, Maier continued to push the horrific crash further behind him with win after win on the World Cup tour. During the 2000-2001 season, he won 13 races, tying the single-season men's record set by Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark 22 years before.

Early in 2001, Maier was an overwhelming favorite to win multiple medals at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, but in August, he suffered a brutal crash while riding his motorcycle. A car hit Maier's bike, sending him hurtling through the air and into a ditch. The initial prognosis was grim: he sustained compound fractures in his lower right leg, nerve damage in his left, and there was life-threatening internal bleeding and swelling. Doctors wondered if he'd ever walk again, let alone ski.

In December, 2001, The Herminator returned to the slopes for the first time, skiing on cross-country skis because he wasn't sure he could trust himself to go slow if he put on regular downhill skis.

He has not yet ruled out an appearance at the Salt Lake City Games.

Information from published reports was used in compiling this story