Austrian Alpine skier Hermann Maier burst from obscurity at the relatively old age of 25 to win three World Cup titles and two Olympic gold medals in 1998, despite a death-defying fall in an Olympic downhill race that season. He dominating the skiing world for the next three seasons, until a severe motorcycle accident in the summer of 2001 prevented him from competing during the 2001-02 season.
A Difficult Course
Maier, the older of his father Hermann Maier Sr.'s two children, first strapped on skis at age three. "Two days later he was off riding the lift by himself," the elder Maier, the owner of a skiing school, recalled to Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated. Skiing was a common passion in the Maiers' hometown of Flachau, Austria: The town had four other skiing schools, in addition to the Maiers', for a mere 2,500 inhabitants.
Maier was always recognized as a good skier, but Austria is full of good skiers. Although he was accepted to the Austrian national ski academy at the age of 15, after a year there he failed to stand out as a potentially great skier and he was asked to leave. Undeterred, he returned to Flachau, where he worked as a bricklayer in the summer. In the winters he taught skiing at his father's ski school for five hours a day and practiced his own skiing the rest of the time.
He soon established himself as the local champion in slalom and giant slalom, and in the spring of 1995 the president of his regional ski federation, Alex Reiner, helped to get him the opportunity to ski in the Austrian national championships. Maier finished eighteenth. Encouraged by this result, Maier quit his bricklaying job late in 1995 and started training full time again, hoping
to be able to qualify for the Europa Cup circuit, one step below the top World Cup circuit.
Reiner arranged another tremendous opportunity for Maier in January 1996. A World Cup giant slalom event was being held in Flachau. It is customary for a forerunner, a noncompeting skier, to ski the course before the competitors go down, and Reiner arranged for Maier to do this. Had Maier actually been a competitor, his time on the course would have placed him seventh after the first run-only a second behind then-champion Alberto Tomba -and eleventh after the second run. After those performances, he was offered a spot in the Austrian national program. He skied on the Europa Cup circuit for a few months and won the overall Europa Cup title. By the end of the season he had been promoted to the World Cup team.
Success at Last
Maier skied in only three World Cup races in the 1995-96 season, but he did manage to finish eleventh in one of them. The next season he broke his wrist and missed part of the season, but he still finished in the top five at four races. Along the way, many people took notice of Maier's style of skiing, which was considerably more aggressive than that of most top racers. Most skiers took wide, gliding lines on their curves, covering more distance but maintaining speed that would have been lost had they carved more and hewed closer to the gates. Maier, on the other hand, had "the ability to glide while maintaining a tight line, which was always assumed to be impossible," his coach Werner Margreiter told Layden. "It's a very exciting thing to see."
In the 1997-98 season everything came together for Maier. He won three World Cup titles that season, the giant slalom and the super giant slalom (super G) as well as the overall. He also won two gold medals at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in the same two events. He might possibly have won another medal in the downhill, the first event he skied in in Nagano, as well, had he not had a spectacular crash during that event. On a particularly steep curve near the top of the course Maier lost control at around 65 miles per hour, went airborne, and cartwheeled through two snow fences. He landed in soft snow, walked away with only a dislocated shoulder and a sprained knee, and won the gold medal in the super G only three days later.
The video of Maier's crash was shown repeatedly around the world over the next few days, much to Maier's chagrin. "If you ask me," he told Hampton Sides of Outside Online magazine, "I would prefer to be famous for winning two gold medals in Nagano rather than for my screwup."
A Devastating Accident
Maier went on to win nine World Cup titles in the next three seasons. In 2000 he accomplished the rare feat of winning four World Cup titles-downhill, giant slalom, super G, and overall-in one year, and he repeated this accomplishment in 2001. That year he also tied famed Swedish skier Ingemar Stenmark 's record of 13 wins in World Cup races in a single season. He was "the Herminator," unstoppable. Then a horrible accident threatened to end his career, and possibly his life.
|1972||Born December 7 in Altenmarkt, Austria, to Hermann and Gertraud Maier|
|1988||Begins attending Austrian national ski academy|
|1989||Leaves ski academy and begins studying to be a bricklayer|
|1993-95||Becomes Salzburg champion in super G, giant slalom, and slalom; Tyrolean champion in giant slalom; and Carinthian champion in slalom|
|1996||Earns his first World Cup points February 3|
|1997||Wins first World Cup race, in Garmisch, Germany, February 23|
|2001||Almost loses right leg in a motorcycle accident|
Maier was riding his motorcycle in Radstadt, Austria, on August 24, 2001, when he was hit by a car and thrown into a ditch. He suffered severe injuries in both legs, and doctors considered amputating his right leg. Ultimately the leg was saved, but Maier was in no shape to compete in the 2001-02 season. He first strapped on skis again that December. In the summer of 2002 Maier traveled to Chile to practice for his comeback, but he reinjured his leg. Finally, on January 14, 2003, Maier raced in his first World Cup event since the accident. He finished a disappointing thirty-first in the first run of this giant slalom event, missing the cutoff to compete in the second run by five-hundredths of a second, but he vowed to keep trying. "I have to admit I was expecting to do a bit better," Maier said after the race, Erica Bulman of the Associated Press reported. "But in reality, it's a victory for me just to be back racing."
Awards and Accomplishments
|1998||Olympic super G and giant slalom|
|1998, 2000-01||Giant slalom World Cup|
|1998-2001||Super G World Cup|
|1998, 2000-01||World Cup overall champion|
|2000-01||Downhill World Cup|
Borzilleri, Meri-Jo. "Austrian Star Maier's Return This Season Up in the Air." Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO; December 9, 2002): SP6.
Coffey, Wayne. "King of the Hill Again." Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia; February 17, 1998): 75.
Freestone, Nick. "Maier Ready for Return to Slopes." Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland; December 21, 2001): 19.
Layden, Tim. "He's the Mann." Sports Illustrated (February 2, 1998): 70-72.
——. "Street Fighting." Sports Illustrated (February 23, 1998): 40-45.
Masters, Sophie. "Maier Back in Training after Injury." Independent (London; January 8, 2003).
Bulman, Erica. "Maier's Skiing Comeback Leaves Impression." Miami Herald: Herald.com. http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/sports/4950088.tm (January 15, 2003).
"Hermann Maier: Overview." SKI-DB. http://www.ski-db.com/db/profiles/merhe.asp (January 8, 2003).
Sides, Hampton. "Thinking about Machine-Man." Outside Online. http://web.outsideonline.com/magazine/1198/9811machineman.html (January 8, 2003).
Sketch by Julia Bauder