Monday, November 23, 2009

Random Athlete Feature: Herman Maier

Probably one of my most vivid childhood memories of the Olympics, one that doubled my already sky-high love of skiing, was watching Hermman Maier at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Like so many things about the Olympics, the downhill skiing competition is, quite simply, insane. In few other Olympic events is there an actual sense of danger for the athlete involved. Unlike Michael Phelps or Usian Bolt, downhill racers are putting their life on the line, all in the name of pushing the envelope to attain that extra thousandth of a second (which is not even the length of a ski boot). That is the very, very small difference between golden glory and eighth place anonymity.
As if to remind the “we only watch skiing during the Olympics” fans (which I am included in) of this chilling fact is the occasional horrific crash. Like a NASCAR race, the fans are wowed (perhaps guiltily so) by a terrible crash and none caused more ‘guilty excitement’ than Hermman Maier’s death defying wipe out on the upper side of his run in the downhill. Pushing the envelope in the characteristic way that he had carved his career out of, Maier looked scary fast early during the downhill competition, but fell (or flew to describe it more accurately) and crashed through about every line of barrier/protection in Asia this side of the Great Wall.
Sitting there, an avid skier myself, I freaked out and jumped out of my chair when I saw Maier fire into camera view on that fateful bend. The crash itself happened so quickly that he was already threw the multi layered barriers by the time the announcer even said anything, but I knew right away. To simply fly off your edge in mid-turn is a surefire way for any skier to end up not skiing for months, even years. And that’s the rule for people like me and my friends, let alone someone like Maier and his crazy downhill compatriots.
I still remember it very clearly, and the first thing that struck me after the crash was that Maier was miraculously up and moving almost right away, brushing snow off himself, adjusting his goggles and bustling with all the actions of a skier that belied the intensity of his crash. It was like he was embarrassed more than anything else (which, it turns out, was true). Still, the second thing that I thought about was the pure audacity of the man. In seeing him go through such a mind numbingly terrible fall, it was like getting a glimpse at the worst case scenario of ski racing and it would be enough to send most people towards playing a safer sport. This was not Maier, who reveled in his aggressiveness and derived much of his edge from it. For anyone who disagreed, they only had to look at what he did next.
That certain athletes are fearless is undeniable, but to describe Maier’s lack of fear is taking it to another level. Not only did Maier (or the ‘Herminator’ as he is famously known) get up and resume skiing, but he cemented his Olympic legacy by walking away with both the Super-G and Giant Slalom gold medals. It was a classic example of an already charismatic athlete seizing a unique moment on the largest of stages. Not only had he gone through one of the most traumatic crashes in Olympic history, but he had emerged almost completely unscathed. It was a tremendously lucky thing, since by all accounts the crash was powerful enough to have killed him had everything not happened so perfectly.
No one knew this better than Maier, who was (and still is) no stranger to terrible accidents. He would leave Nagano clutching his slew of medals and dominate the World Cup circuit, totaling 54 wins before his retirement earlier in October. That number would have been even greater had he not gotten into another, much more serious crash in August 2001. Maier collided with a car while riding his motorcycle home from training and the damage was so severe his leg was nearly amputated.
Yet despite having to miss the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, the Herminator returned in January 2003 and, true to the Disney-esque script of his career, won a Super-G race to the general amazement of the skiing world. Oh, and did I mention the part where he had only been back racing for two weeks? You can’t make this stuff up and so for that reason, I couldn’t resist highlighting my favorite skier of all time in the first ever Random Athlete Feature.
And even more randomly: