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What a man, what a life

PlanetSKI takes a fond look back at one of the greatest racers of them all. Hermann Maier. Our content editor was priviledged to see him race on several occasions.

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The  Hundschopf jump in the Lauberhorn race in the Swiss resort of Wengen is one of the most famous jumps of them all.  Thousands of Swiss gather there to cheer their heroes while they boo and jeer pretty much everyone else.

Ski racing in that part of the world is a passion, like football in the UK where you wouldn’t hear The Kop cheering as Wayne Rooney scored a goal for Manchester United at Anfield.

However, when the Austrian Hermann Maier came flying over the jump when I was there a couple of seasons back the crowd went wild.  The cowbells rang, the drums were beaten and the noise was deafening.

To this highly partisan crowd Maier was a skier first and foremost, an Austrian second.  A tingle went up my spine.

It very nearly though didn’t happen at all.

At 15 years old he was sent home from the Schaladming Ski Academy as he was told he would never make it. He was too thin.

He became a brick-layer instead.

But he stuck at it and when he started as a forerunner in a 1996 World Cup giant slalom race he ended up getting the 12th fastest time.

He made his debut at the age of 23 on February 10th 1996 in Hinterstoder in Austria and within a year had won his first world cup race.  It was the first of 54 victories, the highest number of any racer except the legendary Ingemar Stenmark, from Sweden, who amassed an amazing 86.

He is ahead of all the greats; Pirmin Zurbriggen, AlbertoTomba, Bode Miller and even his compatriot and hero, Franz Klammer.

It is often said that he used physical strength rather than technical brilliance to power himself to victory. Well as far as I am concerned you can’t obtain 54 victories without having a mastery of ski technique.

And yet it nearly ended in 2001 when he was riding back from a summer training session on his motorbike. He hit a car at speed and badly injured his lower leg.  It was thought he may have to have it amputated, but in a 7 hour operation doctors decided they could save it as he underwent massive re-constructive surgery. 

Many thought he would never ski again, let alone race.

Two years later in Kitzbuehel he won the Super-G.  The next winter, in his first full season back, he won both the Super-G and the overall title.

It was one of the greatest sporting comebacks ever.  In any sport.

“Maier was simply outstanding and Kitzbuehel was his arena. Out of 7 starts there he won 5 times and came second once. His legendary status is guaranteed,” says Neil McQuoid, the editor of the web site and magazine, Racer Ready.

For a fuller tribute from McQuoid see the comment box at the end of this story and feel free to add and share your own thoughts about Maier’s retirement.

Apart from his racing skills he was also a huge personality and came along at a time when the sport needed a few characters.  He became known as The Herminator for his apparent ability to be indestructible; not only surviving the motorcycle accident, but also winning 2 Olympic gold medals after an horrific crash in Nagano, Japan in 1998. 

For video footage of that crash see this news story on PlanetSKI.

The nick-name came after that other Austrian, Arnold  Schwarzenegger, played the part of the indestructible Terminator in the series of Hollywood films.

When Maier was asked what went through his head during that huge crash as he flew 40 metres through the air his answer was quick and simple; “I thought that if I win gold now I will be immortal.”

But as the years crept on his body started to pay the price and he never really recovered from a knee injury at the end of last season.

He has decided to bow out from racing when he is at the place that he belongs; the top.

He will be remembered as one of the greatest racers of them all and I will remember him as the only Austrian who I have heard the Swiss go mad for.

Thanks for the memories.

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