February 17, 2006
SESTRIERE, Italy (AP by Erica Bulman)—It was a rare sight: Hermann Maier utterly defeated, flopped over his poles, his barrel chest heaving with exhaustion. Blaming a persistent cold for his failure to medal in the Olympic downhill, the Austrian ski star hardly looked in shape for his sovereign event, the super-G.
But Maier has overcome much worse to win super-G gold, as he did in the 1998 Nagano Games three days after a flying, cartwheeling, will-he-survive crash. His plan these games: Skip town to recuperate and train, then return to the Italian Alps four days later as a medal threat in Saturday's race.
The men's super-G combines the speed of Alpine downhill with the precision turns of giant slalom. Racers can surpass 60 mph while negotiating carving turns over at least 35 direction changes. It has long been a showcase event for Maier, who's back atop the super-G standings this World Cup season.
Maier shares little with his principal super-G rival, American star Bode Miller.
Unlike the downhill, super-G has no training runs so racers must establish the most direct path during the single 90-minute course inspection on race morning. Miller does it in minutes; Maier uses the full time, then often steps over the finish line and studies the terrain from below.
While Maier is calculating, Miller's style is wild and unleashed but remarkably effective when he is on form. But form has been hard for Miller to find at these games _ in this week's combined he led after the downhill run and then was disqualified after straddling a slalom gate.
"I'm prepared to ski well, said Miller, the reigning world and World Cup super-G champion. "It's just a matter of execution.
The other top American is Daron Rahlves, the 2001 super-G world champion. Rahlves will be seeking to make up for a disappointing downhill last Saturday, when he finished 10th.[pagebreak]Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal also is a contender. At 23, he is second in the World Cup discipline rankings after a win and another pair of top-five results. His more experienced teammate, Kjetil Andre Aamodt, has lurked near the top of the standings all season and already has two Olympic super-G golds but has been hurt and hasn't won a World Cup super-G in a decade.
Austria's Hannes Reichelt is a dark horse.
But the dominant personality on Austria's strong and deep team has been Maier, who won the Olympic super-G two Olympics ago only 72 hours after his horrific tumble and then went on to win gold in the giant slalom.
It was not his only famous crash.
Maier couldn't defend his Olympic titles at Salt Lake City because he wasn't there _ he had shattered both lower legs when a car hit his motorcycle.
Maier underwent seven hours of surgery and was close to kidney failure. Doctors worried they might have to amputate his shattered right leg. He had to relearn how to walk before he could even think about standing on skis again.
The crash changed Maier. Just before racing, his face would twist with a barely contained ruthlessness, his chilling eyes otherworldly. He was known as "the monster.
These days he is more pensive and contained and less often called by his other nickname, the Herminator.[pagebreak]After returning to this mountain resort following his hometown convalescence and training, Maier told reporters he wouldn't have to medal in the super-G to be happy.
"It would be nice to get one, Maier said, "but not a tragedy if I don't.
It was a super-G victory that marked his comeback after an 18-month absence. In only his fifth race back _ the savage, jagged hump of skin graft still blazing red _ Maier won the arduous Kitzbuehel race. His first full season back from his accident, Maier won the overall and super-G World Cup crystal globes.
Maier holds the record for career World Cup super-G victories with 23 and has won the World Cup discipline title five times.
But he appears to have lost some steam the last two years and this seeason has been struggling with boot problems after switching brands. Maier has tried at least four different pairs, trying to find boots that don't hurt his lower legs _ both of which were broken in half exactly where the top of the boot stops.
"Pain is now part of my life, said Maier, whose distorted right leg is still marred by an uneven hump the size of a man's hand and a long jagged scar running down the inside of his calf.
"I will never be my old self again, Maier said. "I'm still missing total confidence, I'm still missing the indifference, the daredevilness.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press