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Legend of the Fall

50 DAYS TO SALT LAKE CITY

Maier Tries to Come Back Again, This Time From Motorcycle Crash

December 20, 2001|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FLACHAU, Austria — The sturz, that's what he calls it, the otherworldly high-speed crash at the 1998 Winter Olympics that cemented Hermann Maier's reputation as The Herminator. It was a wipe-out that would have, should have maimed a lesser man. Maier got up. A few days later, he won Olympic gold. Then, a few days after that, a second gold medal.

Now there has been another sturz, another crash. This one was on a motorcycle, last summer, only a few kilometers from here, Maier's hometown. His right leg was mangled. He lifts his pants to show off the scar down by his ankle, a nasty, ugly thing the size and shape of a lopsided baseball, the stitches running up, down and around.

A lesser man would have no hope of skiing in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The Games begin 50 days from today.

Already, though, the 29-year-old Maier walks without a limp. With luck, he says, next week he will strap on his skis for the first time since the accident last August. "It's a little bit light on time," he says, grimacing slightly as he slides the pants back down over the scar. "I give it my best."

Thus the stage is set for what promises to be one of the most compelling dramas of the Salt Lake Games: The Herminator--will he be back?

"If it is humanly possible, he will be back," said The Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who since the 1998 Nagano Olympics has become good friends with Maier.

Doubters need only check the tape from Nagano. Maier, though glad to speak in horrific detail about the second sturz, immensely dislikes describing the first. But it was perhaps the signature moment of the 1998 Games, a scene that catapulted him into superstardom and the company of the likes of Schwarzenegger.

Beforehand, Maier was known and respected mostly by ski insiders--as much for his extraordinary story as his ability.

Maier's parents ran a ski school in Flachau, a 750-year-old village of stucco-walled ski chalets and not much more. He learned to ski at 3. At 6, he was winning races.

But Maier was overlooked in Austria, where the most promising skiers are identified at 10 or 12 and lavished with the best coaches, the best training. He was simply too scrawny. He didn't grow until late--at 16, he weighed only 110 pounds--and bulked up to 180 pounds only when he was 20, after a six-month stint in the Austrian military during which he lifted weights and, so the story goes, ran through the Alps with a grenade launcher on his back.

In the summers, he worked as a bricklayer. In the winters, he taught skiing; before work, at dawn, he would ski a slalom course he'd designed for himself.

"What makes him so good as a ski racer is that he has unbelievable talent and he has a specific love to work out," said Herwig Demschar, a former Austrian and U.S. ski team coach who now is Alpine skiing director for the Salt Lake Games. "Sometimes you run into athletes with unbelievable talent but they are lazy. Then you have hard-working guys who have no talent. He has both--a gifted ski racer who has unbelievable touch and loves to work out."

In January, 1996, he was just another ski instructor when the World Cup giant slalom race was held in Flachau. Maier was asked to be a "forerunner," to go down the course before the race to help officials check it out. Maier's time on the run ended up being one second behind Alberto Tomba, the multiple Olympic medal winner who was then considered the best skier on the World Cup circuit.

A few weeks afterward, Maier won a spot on the Austrian team. A year later, in his first World Cup downhill, at Chamonix, France, he fell and broke his left arm; skiing with the cast a few weeks after that, he won his first World Cup race, a super giant slalom at Garmisch, Germany.

By 1998 he was beginning to dominate. On the circuit, he was known at first as the Beast. Then, aptly, The Herminator.

He seemed freakishly indestructible.

He was relentless.

Aloof.

And, besides, built like a truck.

Then came the Olympic downhill in Nagano.

Because of bad weather, the race was pushed back several days. It went off on a Friday. Friday the 13th.

Pushing it, as usual, skiing perhaps 65 or 70 mph, Maier lost an edge around the seventh gate. Suddenly, he was flying.

Maier flew for 50 meters, for a breathtakingly long moment, seemingly suspended in mid-air, windmilling his arms, now his left arm down, right arm up, the tip of his right ski up by his head and the white Austrian lion on the crown of his red helmet.

Then he hit. Hard. He did three somersaults. He crashed through two snow fences and went beyond another. Finally, he came to rest, face first, in deep, soft snow.

After a few motionless moments, Maier got up. He stood up, brushed off the snow, wagged a finger to show the folks back home he was OK, retrieved his skis, clicked back in and skied down the mountain, shooing away worried officials.

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