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WINTER OLYMPICS 1998

No One Will Forget Great Crash of '98

Alpine skiing: Maier's spectacular spill is the talk of the Games.

February 14, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAKUBA, Japan — Veteran American downhiller AJ Kitt returned to his room and watched the replay 18 times.

"That," Kitt said to a friend, "was impressive."

Stefan Oswalt of the Zurich Daily News has covered ski racing for 27 years. He saw Austria's Gernot Reinstadler die in a downhill crash in 1991 at Wengen, Switzerland, and Austrian Ulrike Maier perish in a 1994 downhill spill at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

But Oswalt said Hermann Maier's crash at Friday's Olympic downhill was "the most spectacular" he had ever witnessed.

People here can't stop talking about the high-speed wreck, in which Maier lost an edge rounding the now infamous Gate No. 7 and was launched at 65 mph through two retaining fences. Maier, the World Cup overall leader, did three somersaults before sticking into the soft snow.

When Maier went airborne, experts who have seen this before expected the worse.

Bill Egan, the U.S. men's Alpine coach, was on the hill and immediately began rushing toward the fallen Austrian.

"I thought when he went down, it was pretty bad," Egan said. "But then he popped right up."

That Maier walked away from the crash, and actually was scheduled to race in Saturday's super-giant slalom before it was rained out, will only add to the growing myth of the 25-year-old Austrian.

Should Maier now return to win a gold medal--he was a medal favorite in both the super-G and giant slalom--after surviving such a harrowing fall, they might name a mountain after him in his hometown of Flachau.

"He would be Superman," said Piero Valsecchi, an Associated Press ski writer based in Milan.

The tale of Maier's spill swept from shop to shop through this tiny ski hamlet in the Japan Alps.

"Ultimately, it is a badge of honor, walking away from a bad crash," said Steve Porino, a former U.S. ski team downhill racer who now writes for Ski Racing magazine.

At a party hosted by Salomon, which provided the skis for Olympic downhill champion Jean-Luc Cretier of France, employees cheered each time Maier's crash was replayed on television. A guitar player plucked the riff from "Wipeout" each time Maier entered the fateful curve.

Maier skis for Atomic, a rival company.

At the Austrian ski team hotel, reporters clung to Maier's every word as he recounted his fall with remarkable jocularity. He reported having only a sore left shoulder and right knee.

He cracked that in mid-flight, "I saw blue sky but I didn't see Lufthansa."

Maier did concede that "an angel of luck was flying with me."

Downhill watchers immediately started to rank Maier's crash on their ghoulish all-time lists.

"It was maybe even more spectacular that Pietro Vitalini's," the AP's Valsecchi said.

Vitalini's head-over-heels spill at the famed Kitzbuehel in Austria in 1995 had generally set the standard.

Not only did Vitalini walk away unscathed, he raced in a second downhill a few hours later.

"Pietro and [Hermann] Maier were both lucky because they found soft snow," Valsecchi said.

In 1987, U.S. downhiller Todd Brooker took a horrible tumble at Kitzbuehel, not far from where Vitalini crashed eight years later.

"[He] looked like a side of beef that got thrown out of a truck," Porino said. "It effectively ended his career."

Porino also nominated Tori Pillinger, a former U.S. downhiller who broke her leg and pelvis in a 1987 crash at Leukerbad, Switzerland, when she hit a finish-line pole at 60 mph.

Other spills on the list included Brian Stemmle's fall at Kitzbuehel in 1989 and U.S. skier Chad Fleischer's on the same course in 1995.

Fleischer's spill made international highlights. He mistimed a jump near the end of the course and was upended like a paper airplane in a wind storm.

With 50,000 fans crowded in the finish area, Fleischer somehow got to his feet and took a bow.

Saturday, he explained how that was possible.

"You have so much adrenaline," Fleischer said. "You're pushing yourself so hard that your body actually separates from your mind at that point. I compare it to a deer getting hit by a car, getting up and running 10 yards and dropping dead. You're fine for five or 10 minutes. But a day later you realize just how much you hurt."

Fleischer said he was not surprised Maier would try to race less than 24 hours after his crash, that it was part of a ski racer's macho mentality.

"It's like everything else we do," said Fleischer, who is entered in the super-G.

Fleischer suspects Maier would have been too sore to race Saturday, but might have time to heal if races continue to get postponed.

"He might get lucky," Fleischer said.

In fact, Hermann Maier is already lucky. He is, after all, alive.

"Because he walked away, I'll have to admit I enjoyed it," Porino said of the accident and replays. "Of course, I don't have to go to the start gate anymore.

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