“Hermannator” thrills Nagano
The story of Austria's Hermann Maier is a compelling, and one that at times beggars belief. A bricklayer and part-time ski instructor, he only came to full-time competitive skiing in his 20s, three years before these Games, yet he would establish himself as one of the finest winter sportsman in the world. And all the while, he skied as if he was fleeing an avalanche, attacking the mountains with utter determination.
He was entered into four events in Nagano, starting with the downhill. Faced with a difficult course, his adrenaline-fuelled skiing style saw him crash spectacularly, flying through the air and appearing to land on his head. He went through two lines of catch fencing. It looked like a horrific accident and yet somehow Maier managed to get back onto his feet, brush himself down, and walk away with nothing more than a sore shoulder and knee, and a headache.
His favourite event was the super G, which was due to be held the next day. However, it ended up being postponed twice due to bad weather, which gave Maier more time to recover. By the time he took to the course he was back to his best. Skiing slightly more conservatively than he had in the downhill, he beat the time of his team-mate Hans Knauss by more than half a second. Nobody else came close, giving Maier his first Olympic gold medal – just 72 hours after the crash that some people feared would end his season, and possibly his career.
By now known as “the Hermannator”, Maier’s exploits made him a huge favourite with the Nagano public. Three days later, he produced a similarly dominant performance in the giant slalom, recording the fastest time in both runs to beat the field by the best part of a minute.
The Austrian went on to become his country’s most successful ever male skier, winning 54 World Cup races. In 1999, he was voted Austria's sportsman of the year, a title went on to win the three following years as well.
Maier had another potentially career-ending crash in 2001, this time on a motorbike. Yet again, he somehow recovered to win silver and bronze medals at the 2006 Games in Turin, before retiring from competitive skiing in 2009, at the age of 36.