He became known as the Hermannator because he seemed invincible. Hermann Maier, the one-time bricklayer, seized control of World Cup skiing in 1997 and-like his Hollywood namesake-destroyed the competition with ruthless intensity. His defining moment came in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, where he walked away from a death-defying crash in the downhill and went on to win gold in the super G and giant slalom.
According to the script, he would continue his reign through Salt Lake 2002, then ski into the sunset on his still-smoldering Atomics. But in August 2001, on a road in Austria, a car struck his motorcycle. For a few tense days, death, paralysis and amputation were all possibilities. Now, the only thing on his mind is a comeback.
With skin grafts, a foot-long titanium rod in his leg and other assorted hardware, Maier's body has, ironically enough, been reassembled. Maier returned to the slopes in July and hopes to compete on the World Cup tour this season. He admits there is a lot of work ahead, but his career and his spirit are anything but terminated.
SKI How did you start your recovery?
HM In the hospital, I started with a specially designed ergometer hand bike, then swimming and walking lessons. Riding my stationary bike to get my basic endurance back was probably the most time-intensive part of the rehab.
SKI You have said the experience "makes you humble."
HM With the accident, I met my fate. The season before, everything seemed so easy: Skiing was fun, everything seemed perfect, and I was on top. Then it happened. That's how life goes. After the accident, I learned to appreciate little things, like going to the bathroom by myself. I know that I was lucky. It could have been much worse!
SKI When did you first realize that you could make a comeback?
HM I always had a comeback in mind-that was the ignition key to go on, to keep on riding my stationary bike last fall. I really tried to keep my last flicker of hope alive to make it to the Olympics somehow. But in January, I realized that it didn't make sense. When I stepped into the ski boot I still felt pain, and my head was not ready.
SKI Did you watch the Games on TV?
HM No. I escaped to the Bahamas. I was scuba diving or hanging out on the beach. There was almost no live coverage on TV-the only thing they seemed interested in was the figure skating scandal.
SKI How was it when you did watch ski racing last year?
HM I watched some races on TV, and I thought: "That's not possible, if you race like that you can't win!" It was hard to sit out and watch; knowing every part of the slope, knowing exactly how you could win the race.
SKI When will you consider your comeback complete? With the first race? The first podium? The first win?
HM I want to come back on top-then I will have accomplished everything: I came out of nowhere, won everything in a very short period of time, got hit by a car and came back again.
SKI Any ideas about life after skiing?
HM I still need all the focus for my ski career. I'm 29, the best age to compete on the top level. Other guys win at 33, 34-I hope I still have some good years ahead!