Skiing Superstar

Published in The Listener

It is one of those sporting moments that, courtesy of a thousand lingering and lurid slow motion replays, is indelibly burned into the mind.  Hermann Maier, the skiing machine they call ‘the Herminator’ is wearing the red and white ski suit and red helmet emblazoned with the eagle of the Austrian empire.  Favourite to win gold, he sails over a steep rollover near the start of the Nagano Olympic downhill course at a speed already over 120 km/h.  As he vaults into the blue Japanese sky it looks for a brief moment as if he’s flying gracefully and might stick the landing to continue his brutal assault on the course to victory.  But his trajectory continues cruelly upwards and as he reaches the top of his arc it’s suddenly clear it is all wrong.  His arms windmill wildly as he fights gravity, fights momentum, and finally fights that inevitable moment when he explodes back down on the icy race course and rag dolls through the safety fences.

Then, almost more improbably, the limp and lifeless looking figure somehow painfully stumbles to his feet, shakes his head, waves away the worried officials, clicks back into his skis and heads off down the mountain.  It is the moment of the Nagano Winter Olympics and a career defining moment for Maier.  Not so much because of the crash but because 2 days later with a dislocated left shoulder, a severely bruised disk in his lower back, a badly swollen right knee and contusions everywhere he came back to the mountain and won the Olympic Super G by half a second.  And as if that were not enough, 3 days later he returned again and won gold in the Giant Slalom.

“In a way the crash was the best thing that ever could have happened to him,” said John Garnsey, an American jury member at Nagano.  “If Maier had just won two gold medals he’d be yet another great Austrian skier known and respected by insiders, but not a household name.  To succeed is boring.  To fail spectacularly and then succeed – that’s really something.”

Just over 5 years later and the most famous ski racer in the world is sitting in the café at Treble Cone nursing a cup of coffee and gazing up the hill as a Nor’ West front rolls in.  It is 10 am and the race training that began on the hill 4 hours before is finished for the day.  With longish dirty blonde hair jammed under a cap, intensely pale blue eyes and a set of orthodontic braces that make him look reminiscent of the villainous ‘Jaws’, James Bonds nemesis in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, the Herminator cuts an imposing figure worthy of his name.  Ask him about that moment in Nagano and a pained look crosses his face.  He’s been asked about the crash countless times and the answer is always the same.  “I’d prefer to be remembered for winning two gold medals in Nagano than for my screw up.”

However Maier seems destined to be remembered for his roller coaster ride through life, for if Nagano was the skiing comeback of the century the last couple of years have produced an even more unlikely, inspiring tale.  Two years ago he was riding his beloved Ducati Monster along an Austrian mountain road when a car turned in his path.  His lower right leg was so horrifically smashed that the doctors were going to amputate his foot.  But in a 7 hour operation a team of surgeons screwed a 32 cm titanium rod into his shin and managed to save the most famous limb in Austria – although he was never expected to be able to walk again.  “When the accident happened my first focus was to keep my leg and then to walk,” Maier says in his Austrian-accented English.  “I could not even think about skiing again at that time.  The pain was so bad I couldn’t sleep for 6 months.”

Surrounded by other members of the Austrian ski team who are visiting Treble Cone for several weeks of vital off-season race training, Maier and his compatriots look like something out of a Hitlerian fantasy.  Blond, blue-eyed Supermen with thighs like kauri trunks, the 6 racers sitting virtually unnoticed at the café table have between them cleaned up over half the medals in the Olympics and World Cups over the last few years.  That might not mean much in New Zealand, but in Europe skiing is a national obsession and life grinds to a halt as people gather in the pubs and cafes to watch the World Cup races on Euro Sport each winter weekend.  Ski racers there are national heroes and earn money that would make the All Blacks look hard done by, even with their Rugby World Cup bonuses.  And the Austrian team are currently the best in the world.

But amongst the Austrian racers the Herminator is by far the most famous.  In a sport where the difference between glory and calamity is dangerously blurred, Maier is famous for skiing the tightest, most fearless lines.  He is also renowned for the unrelenting, methodical brutality of his training regime.  And he is celebrated for the fact that as a skinny kid he never made the national ski racing team and spent years bulking up working as a bricklayer and a ski instructor until he finally burst onto the international ski racing scene at the relatively advanced age of 24.  But even more than the Nagano crash he is now famous now for what has happened since his motorcycle accident.

When last year’s Salt Lake Olympics rolled around Maier was still unable to get his swollen leg into a ski boot but, despite the doctor’s predictions, by the end of 2002 he was back on skis again.  He almost immediately appeared in a World Cup skiing gingerly before announcing it was time to go back into training.  And then, with just 10 days of race training under his belt, he won one of the toughest World Cup Super G’s on the circuit – the fearsome and famous Kitzbuel course in Austria.  The Herminator, as the saying goes, was back!

“It’s still tough because I don’t have much feeling in my right foot,” he explains seriously, before a smile unexpectedly creases his face “But it also means I don’t feel the pain so much when I’m training.”  The accident and subsequent recovery has clearly been just another rollover in the downhill course of life for the Herminator.  Others view it differently.

“It was a miracle,” notes Guenther Bergmann, the Austrian head of Treble Cone’s Race Department.   “It would be like Andre Agassi nearly having his arm cut off and coming back to win Wimbledon a year later.  And now seeing him train you would not know it had happened.  He is awesome to watch.  The others are like buses, then Hermann skis and he is a freight train.”

Indeed up on the mountain that morning he seemed to ski with an intensity that set him apart from even his World Cup winning team mates.  Eyes coldly focused, his powerful physique hunched in an aerodynamic tuck, he stormed down the Super G training course on Treble Cone’s Main Street like a man possessed.  Little wonder then that his nicknames on the ski racing circuit include ‘The Beast’, ‘The Monster’ and even ‘The Alien’.

But back in the café the man who is famous for his terse and taciturn interviews and disdain of the media hype appears relaxed and up beat.  “Training is going well and my leg feels a lot better than last season.  And Treble Cone is a great for us because we get to ski the same mix of natural winter snow and man made snow we will be racing on in the Northern Hemisphere in 3 months time.  Plus it is very beautiful here too.  But most of all we like it here because we are not so well known.  If we are not training the next day we can go to the pub and enjoy a beer.”

This from a man who is mobbed wherever he goes in Europe and lives his life under intense media scrutiny.  One imagines it would be like the All Blacks going to Austria for their World Cup build-up.  Clearly for Maier being a relative unknown in a far away land is a welcome break.  And once again the man who is known for being humourless breaks into a smile when I ask him who he’ll be supporting in that night’s Bledislow Cup decider.  “I am with the All Blacks for sure – but what I really like is that dance they do…what do you call it?  Ya – the haka.  I want to learn this for before my races.”

It’s a fearsome prospect, the ultimate alpine warrior breaking into a haka at the top of a World Cup downhill.  Enough to make the other competitors tremble in their ski boots.  But it’s not going to happen for now because as the Nor’ Wester picks up it is time for the Herminator to head back down to Wanaka for several hours of pushing weights and riding the stationary bike at the gym.  Then it will be physio and massage before analysis of the video of today’s training.  There will be just one hour off after dinner before sitting down to talk with the technicians who prepare the skis for the next day.  Meanwhile the coaches and groomers will be back up on Treble Cone preparing the course for the next morning.  The World Cup is just months away and Hermann Maier has a reputation and his titles to defend.

And beyond that, will he keep skiing?  “Ya – I still love to go fast and I still love to ski.  I just take it as it comes.”  What about coming back to train in Wanaka next year?  He turns with an ironic grin and utters the line his compatriot and contender for Governor of California made famous in the film that spawned his nickname, “I’ll – be – baaaack!”