To see him cry at his retirement was startling. Hermann Maier, the indestructible force of downhill skiing, is human after all.
Here was a man who had come to define his sport. As a teenager he was told he was too scrawny to make the powerful Austrian team, so he retreated to his hometown of Flachau to work as a bricklayer in the summer and a ski instructor in the winter.
He emerged to conquer the alpine world.
In all, Maier claimed 54 World Cup victories, four overall World Cup titles, four Olympic medals, and three world championships.
Not bad for a cast off.
Maier even survived a 2001 motorcycle crash where he nearly lost his life to win at Kitzbuhel again. It was the kind of victory that defied comprehension. Kitzbuhel has destroyed the dreams of the most physically sound skiers — much less those who have had their lives reconstructed as Maier had.
“I would argue that it is the biggest comeback to glory of any athlete ever,” Todd Brooker noted. Brooker, one of the Crazy Canucks of the late 1970s and ’80s, also won at Kitzbuhel and suffered its devastation when a horrific crash there hastened his retirement.
“No one could ever say that Maier didn’t give it everything he had,” Brooker continued. “He has been an example of steadfast determination to achieve a lifetime goal. His was to be the best ski racer on the planet.”
Alpine Canada’s chief athletics officer, Max Gartner, is in agreement. Gartner who is Austrian born, first pointed to Maier as someone for Canadians to watch in 1996, the year The Herminator roared onto the scene and started piling up wins as a 23-year-old.
“His focus on every little detail was unprecedented,” Gartner said. “He showed that almost anything can be overcome and his legacy is that he moved the sport to a new level.”
To watch Maier compete was to understand that no race was over until he had descended the mountain and delivered his patented aggressive attack. The other athletes all understood that he alone set the standard.
For those Canadians of a certain generation, meeting Maier was akin to encountering Jean Beliveau or Bobby Orr.
You just knew The Herminator was a living legend. There was no one else quite like him.