Monday, February 16, 1997
'Herminator' wins with icy nerve

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

maier
Three days after a disastrous spill in the downhill, Germany's Hermann Maier won the Olympic super-G Monday.
(AP photo)
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HAKUBA, Japan - The fundamental requirement for downhill racing is fearlessness. The slopes are slippery. The speed is swift. You can't dwell on the danger and expect to succeed. You can't think too deeply. You must simply react.

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How else to explain Hermann Maier, the erstwhile crash dummy who won the Olympic super-G Monday morning? Three days after a disastrous spill in the downhill, the aggressive Austrian was again the fastest man on the mountain, winning a gold medal when a lesser skier might have been contemplating a career change.

''It's unbelievable,'' said Hans Knauss, Maier's teammate and one of two silver medalists. ''I know what it means to crash like that. Usually, you have a lot of stuff in your head. But Hermann has a lot of self-confidence. Two days after he crashed, I talked to him and he was the old Hermann again.''

Great desire

The ''old'' Hermann Maier is as resilient as the bricks he once layed to make his living. At 15, he was dismissed from a ski school because he was deemed too small and weak in the knees. At 25, he is the dominant figure in his sport: The Herminator, The Beast, Das Monster.

''He always had a very strong desire to win,'' says Hermann Maier Sr. ''Something inside him dies when he loses and gives him the power to try even harder next time.''

This is a useful trait on the slopes, for even the world's finest skiers are prone to slip periodically. After complaining that the downhill course was too flat for his tastes, Hermann Maier's wipeout was one for the ages. If you didn't know better, you might have thought he was auditioning for the ''Agony of Defeat'' gig on Wide World Of Sports.

Eighteen seconds into his run, Maier lost an inside edge and sailed horizontally for roughly 50 meters, crashed through two snow fences, and came to rest with multiple contusions.

He had a bruised hip, a bruised shoulder, a bruised knee and a powerful headache.

''Was it the worst crash of your career?'' he was asked Monday.

''It was worst enough for me,'' Maier said.

''We all saw that crash live on TV,'' Knauss said. ''Two seconds before the crash I said, 'Oh, it's too fast.' I know Hermann very well and he's a very aggressive skier. He's sometimes right on the limit, sometimes more than the limit. . . . He takes 5-10 percent more risk than the rest of us.''

Not quite full-throttle

Maier said he was slightly less aggressive Monday, but the difference was too subtle to be seen. Knauss, sixth out of the starting gate, crossed the finish line in 1:35.43, and was temporarily in first place. He figured his time would be good enough for a medal, but he assumed Maier would find a way to go faster.

The Herminator had won four straight super-G's on the World Cup circuit and has been so dominant in the downhill that Tommy Moe, the defending Olympic champion, said Maier was, ''bringing skiing up to a whole new level.''

''Just look at his face at the start,'' marveled French coach Michel Vion. ''He seems ready to eat the first gate.''

Talent unbelievable

If Friday's crash made Maier slightly more cautious, it did nothing to diminish his ability. His winning time of 1:34.82 was .61 seconds better than that of Knauss and Switzerland's Didier Cuche. In skiing, this equates to an eternity.

''It was hard for me after the big crash,'' he said. ''I think I was a little bit, maybe, scared. . . . There is pain in my right knee and my left shoulder. The right knee is not so good at the moment.''

On balance, though, Hermann Maier was way ahead of the game. That he was even able to stand following Friday's crash was a remarkable achievement. That he was willing to race again so soon afterward is proof of his willpower. (He has so far lacked the courage to watch the videotape, but who can blame him?)

While recounting the crash Monday afternoon, Maier was asked if he might have been safer had he made his downhill run in an automobile.

''Maybe,'' he said, ''in a tank.''

Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.

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