Some racers wield their skis like rapiers, an artful duel at speed: the thrust and parry leaving the curved mark of Zorro on the piste. Maier was quite the opposite. He bludgeoned the race course in a festival of destruction that bent the gates, his competitors, and the mountain itself to his will.
It seems perverse to find beauty in the whirlwind of hatred that passed for Maier’s average ski run, but there was something graceful in the gratuitous violence. The connoisseur of devastation will, however, always find something striking in the wreckage the Herminator left behind; smashed course infrastructure, broken ski equipment, wounded spectators and the lifeless husks of his adversaries.
This combination of controlled rage, hard yards, competitive acumen and rock-solid talent made Hermann Maier the best all-round ski racer ever. Not even the deeply cynical Fat Cantab editorial team can dispute his record: four overall World Cup titles (1998, 2000, 2001, 2004), two Olympic gold medals (both in 1998), and three World Championship titles (two in 1999 and one in 2005). Let’s not forget his 54 World Cup race victories: 24 super-G, 15 downhill, 14 giant slalom, and one combined. Slalom, then as now, was hardly considered a legitimate sport.
A beast both on and off the race course the Herminator’s training regime was legendary: from hours spent on his stationary bike (“I already know how to ski”) to juggling shotput balls. Like every Fat Cantab hero he valued strength over technique, attack over defence and gonads over style. His backstory is equally compelling: Maier never had it handed to him on a silver platter. Raised in a mountainous region in Austria without electricity or paved roads, the entire valley only had a few dozen chromosomes with which to fashion a genome. Maier spent years working as a brickie before breaking into the Austrian national ski team at an age (24) when most pundits thought he was long past it.
The Herminator’s technique defies analysis simply because most of the time he had no idea what he was doing. Never was pure animal instinct more devastatingly deployed for sliding down a mountain real quick. Days before a race the brick-with-eyes would enter a strange trance and not talk to anyone but his ski tuner. Maier’s mind was already ‘on course’ with a visualisation so intense he was unable to switch off even when things didn’t go according to plan. He often mounted the winners’ podium after crashing out of an event and invariably broke the medal presenter’s hand when shaking it. When he challenged Arnold Schwarzenegger to an arm wrestle who do you think won? *
Maier was a poor traveller. His limited understanding of the world beyond the sheltered valleys of Uber Altdorkenstein resulted in repeated diplomatic faux pas on the race circuit. During the 1998 Nagano Olympics he was formally introduced to the Emperor and Empress of Japan in the Chiyoda Palace. Unfortunately, he mistook a tatami mat for drug sample tray and curled one off in front of most members of the extended Imperial household.
No such boundaries existed on the snow. Maier’s career zenithed in an arc of repeated victory rarely seen in sport. Sports writers punched the hot key for ‘thesaurus’ in their quest for ever more ludicrous superlatives. He appeared unstoppable. What could possibly go wrong?
On the 24th of August 2001 a car smashed into the Herminator’s custom Harley Davidson motorbike on the way home from training. Austrian TV broke their regular programming to deliver the news. Maier was something of a big deal in the small mountainous country whose only other contribution to global culture is the invention of the break-away ski gate.
Initially doctors were more concerned with saving his life than his leg. On impact his right leg had been almost severed and, for a time, doctors feared they would have to amputate below the knee. After they had picked all the paint chips from his wound, the surgeons spent seven hours rebuilding his leg with titanium pins. Their hope was he would walk again.
The pundits believed Maier’s racing career was over, and he had to sit out the 2002 season, missing the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. All rehab is slow and lonely; the sponsors stop calling, suspicious race-team colleagues avoid you like the plague, and coaches pat you on the head with pity as they eye the next young buck on the Austrian Ski Team conveyor belt.
Maier returned to international competition in January 2003 in Adelboden, Switzerland. Just two weeks later during a raging blizzard, he shocked the skiing world with victory in the super-G at the spiritual home of ski racing in Kitzbühel, Austria. During the press conference Maier choked back the tears at the most amazing comeback in sporting history. Naturally Fat Cantab doesn’t condone this display of pathetic emotion in the sporting arena.
In 2004 the Herminator, in his first full season back, took both the super-G and overall titles and received the Laureus World Sports Award for the "Comeback of the Year". He hasn’t had to buy a drink since these heady days at any resort in the world and remains the single biggest point source for the consumption of schnapps in Europe.
Hermann Maier – Fat Cantab salutes you.
* Hint: it’s not Arnie…
Below: Hermann Maier's comeback victory 2003