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Austrian Skier Ulrike Maier Dies After Fall in Downhill : Skiing: The only mother on the World Cup circuit, two-time world champion suffers a broken neck after apparently losing balance in a downhill.

January 30, 1994|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tragedy again struck the powerful Austrian ski team Saturday when the World Cup's only skiing mother, Ulrike Maier, was killed in a downhill race after crashing two-thirds down the course at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

Austrian and German officials said Maier--a two time world champion in super-giant slalom and one of Austria's top medal hopes at the upcoming Lillehammer Olympics--suffered a broken neck when her right ski apparently hit a patch of soft snow, causing her to lose balance.

Maier's head struck a timing post, at which time she lost her helmet, tumbled over several times and appeared to have been hit by one of her skis that snapped free.

Officials tried to revive her with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart massage, said Karl Flock, a German team doctor who was on the scene. Christoph Kruis, another doctor who was on the scene, said Maier also was placed on a respirator.

Maier, 26, was flown by helicopter to an emergency accident hospital at Murnau, 15 miles east of the Bavarian resort, but a team of surgeons was unable to save her.

"She had no chance," said Guenter Hofmann, a co-director of the hospital.

He said Maier was virtually dead upon arrival at the hospital.

"It is a black day for all of us," said Hubert Ostler, chief of the race organizing committee.

Austria has dominated the World Cup circuit in recent years, running away with the Nation's Cup last year while placing 23 skiers on the podium. But the country has also known tragedy.

Maier is the fifth member of the Austrian ski team to die in the last three years.

Gernot Reinstadler was killed in practice for a downhill at Wengen, Switzerland, in 1991. Rudolf Nierlich died in a car crash in 1991, and Peter Wirnsberger died in a skiing accident in 1992. Nierlich won the slalom and giant slalom at the World Championships at Vail, Colo., in 1989, when Maier won her first world title. Alois Kahr, an Austrian coach, also died in a car crash during that time.

Maier's crash was televised live in Austria, where Alpine skiing is as popular as the NFL is in the United States. After news of Maier's death, reporters who chronicled her career stood in silence in the press room. Some hugged each other to find comfort.

Maier, a 10-year veteran known as "Ulli," had been a sentimental favorite since 1989, when she won the first of two world titles while she was three months pregnant with a daughter, Melanie.

Maier took a year and a half off after the birth, then returned to Saalbach, Austria, in 1991 to win her second world title in super-G.

Neither Maier's daughter, now 4, nor her long-term companion Hubert Schweighofer, a police officer, witnessed the crash at Garmisch. Maier and Schweighofer had planned to wed next fall.

Maier earned her fifth World Cup victory last week, a giant slalom at Maribor, Slovenia. At the 1992 Albertville Games, she was fourth in giant slalom and fifth in super-G, and currently ranked fourth in the World Cup overall standings.

Although Maier was traveling at speeds estimated at 60 m.p.h., officials said the course was safe.

"It was one of the safest parts of the course," chief referee Kurt Hoch said.

An overnight storm had dumped a layer of fresh snow on the track and the race was delayed an hour while officials prepared the Kandahar course.

American Picabo Street was leading the downhill before the long delay after the crash, which changed course conditions and allowed Isolde Kostner, an 18-year-old Italian in her first World Cup, to win in 1 minute 44.04 seconds. Street finished seventh.

"I'm kind of glad I didn't win today," Street said. "I don't think I'd want to look back at some point to a day I'd won but someone had died, much less someone as great as Uli.

"It just reminds you how it could just as easily happen to you."

A downhill scheduled today at Garmisch-Partenkirchen was canceled.

An Austrian television station, in a tribute, aired an excerpt from a recent interview with Maier, who discussed risks of the sport.

"You can't escape your fate," she said. "But I hope I am able to judge the risks of the downhill."

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