He's The Mann Hermann Maier of Austria, a mason turned speed demon, is tearing up the World Cup circuit like no one in years

February 02, 1998

The boys who lived in the Austrian village of Flachau would ski
nearly every winter afternoon. After school they would rush to
the base of a small hill in the long shadow of the Dachstein,
and because the hill had no chair lift or rope tow they would
step sideways to the top before careening fearlessly down. Then
they would do it again and again, until darkness consumed them.
They would imagine that they were World Cup racers and that the
small bumps on their tiny slope were the treacherous Kamelsprung
on the famous downhill at Val Gardena in Italy's south Tyrol. On
weekends they would watch their older countrymen--most of all
the great Franz Klammer--compete on television and then try to
imitate them.

Fifteen years have passed. The boys are grown. In the dim light
of a midwinter evening, 23-year-old Alex Maier sits at a smooth,
wooden table in the kitchen of his family's two-story stone
house and recalls that his older brother, Hermann, was always
the best of them, the fastest and smoothest skier. "His position
was always small, efficient, his hands were always just right,
in front of him," says Alex. The boys would bring liters of cola
and pieces of chocolate as prizes for the winner of their
after-school races, and usually Hermann ingested the spoils. He
was a restless kid with a single mind who would suffer through
the school day while tapping his foot in anticipation of the
skiing that was to follow. "Always he talked about being in the
World Cup and the Olympic Games," says Alex.

Soft music drifts from the small radio behind him. Alex pauses
when the song stops and a voice begins speaking urgently in
Austrian-accented German. "Listen," says Alex. "He's talking
about Hermann."

The announcer is part of a chorus, singing the story of
25-year-old Hermann Maier, whose late-blooming talent was almost
lost in the prodigious depth of Austrian Alpine skiing (see:
Kenyan distance runners, American point guards, Dominican
shortstops) and who was nearly left to a long career as a
bricklayer. Instead Maier has not only reached the World Cup
circuit--and, soon, the Nagano Olympics--but also overwhelmed it
with a style and a drive that have left his opponents
dumbstruck. "The way he's skiing, he's pretty much taken the
sport to a whole new level," says Tommy Moe, an American who won
the Olympic downhill in 1994. "I mean, it's like it's a new era,
and he's the beginning." Says Moe's U.S. teammate and two-time
Olympian Kyle Rasmussen, "Everybody is just a little bit in awe
of the guy. His own teammates are in awe of him, believe me."
The panting European media have taken to calling him,
alternately, Monster Maier and, in homage to another Austrian
hero, the Hermann-ator.

In what amounts to his first full season on the World Cup
circuit (he skied three World Cup races at the end of the
1995-96 season and missed several weeks of the 1996-97 season
with a broken wrist), Maier has been among the top three
finishers in 13 of 17 races and has won eight, including five in
a row in mid-January, one short of the record of six set by
Jean-Claude Killy in '67. Despite missing three races in
Kitzbuhel, Austria, last weekend while recuperating from boot
bruises on both shins, he's almost certain to become the first
Austrian to win the overall World Cup points title since Karl
Schranz in '70. In Nagano, he will be among the favorites in
four disciplines--downhill, Super G, giant slalom and the
combined--and could become the first Alpine skier since Killy in
'68 to win three golds in a single Games.

All this success has left him more than a little amazed. Last
week Maier sat in the lobby of a plush resort hotel in
Kitzbuhel, his long, thin hair falling across his forehead, a
scraggly beard sprouting along his jaw and a bemused grin fixed
to his face. When introduced to a stranger, he eschewed
formalities, stuck out a gnarled right hand and responded with a
chummy, "Hermann." It is all so new and fresh. "I am really
surprised," he said in earnest, serviceable English. "Also, I am
enjoying it."

In only two years he has revolutionized the speed disciplines of
downhill and Super G with a daring style in which he runs a
straighter line down the mountain than any other skier has
consistently taken. In the speed events the traditional thinking
is that to glide effectively a skier must take a wide line
through turns and around gates, because a tight line entails
carving the snow and ice, which costs a skier speed. "What
Hermann has is the ability to glide while maintaining a tight
line, which was always assumed to be impossible," says Austrian
men's Alpine coach Werner Margreiter. "It's a very exciting
thing to see."

Intimidating, as well. "He's blowing everybody away on the most
difficult sections," says Rasmussen. "The steeper it gets, the
icier it gets; where everybody else holds back, he just charges
right through. You watch him diving into some turns and you say,
Wow, I'm not sure I could do that."

There's something more at work here than pure technique. Maier
is old for a virtual rookie (teammate Christian Mayer, for
instance, is less than a year older than Maier but has spent
seven years on the World Cup circuit), and he's stoked from
years of waiting for his chance. He's hungry, and hunger in
skiing leads to bravery. "You watch him race, watch his eyes,"
says Rasmussen. "The guy just can't get enough of it."

This is because he nearly got none of it. Maier's father, also
named Hermann, is the owner of a ski school who put the older of
his two children on skis at age three. "Two days later he was
off riding the lift by himself," says the father. From the
beginning young Hermann was possessed of a brilliant touch on
the snow and perfect posture on his skis. But he was also tiny,
with skinny, perpetually sore knees. In the fall of 1988, when
he was 15, he was accepted into the national ski academy at
Schladming, but he weighed just 110 pounds. After one year he
was gone. "They said I wasn't fit to ski in their school," says
Maier.

He went home to Flachau and at 16 became a bricklayer's
apprentice, beginning work in a trade that he would practice for
the next seven years. (He's now a journeyman.) His classmates at
Schladming continued training and competing. In the voracious
Austrian system, Maier was dead and forgotten. Yet his ambition
thrived. "I trained every day for my comeback," he says. In the
spring, summer and fall of each year he worked as a bricklayer
and stonemason, hauling 110-pound bags of cement and pushing
wheelbarrows full of brick and stone. His body quickly grew tall
and wide; at 17 he was 5'11" and nearly 200 solid pounds. In the
winter he taught at his family's school, Schischule Maier, one
of five--no lie--ski schools in the hamlet of Flachau (pop.
2,500). "He was giving lessons five hours a day and skiing on
his own the rest of the time," says the older Hermann. "I think
all that practice is why he's such a good, instinctive skier."

In the spring of 1995, at the advanced age of 22 and after
kicking tails in regional races for four years, Maier was given
an opportunity. Alex Reiner, president of the regional Salzburg
Ski Federation, who had been watching Maier's race results,
helped him get a spot in the Austrian championships. "I was of
the opinion that he was a Jahrhunderttalent [talent of the
century]," says Reiner. "I gave him a chance." Because he had no
international points, Maier started from the graveyard of last
place in the giant slalom, 141st position, and finished a
stunning 18th over a course rutted and made icy by the skiers
who had gone before him. This wasn't enough to get him admitted
to the national training program, but it gave him precious
exposure.

On Jan. 6, 1996, Reiner arranged for Maier to ski as a
forerunner for a World Cup giant slalom in Flachau. (Forerunners
are noncompetitors who ski a course before the racers,
ostensibly setting a line but in fact simply priming the crowd.)
"I told the national coaches to watch this forerunner, Hermann
Maier," recalls Reiner. Forerunners are not usually timed, but
Reiner clocked Maier and says he would have finished seventh on
the first run, 11th on the second. The national coaches
immediately installed Maier, who had quit his bricklaying job
two months earlier to train for one last attempt at racing, on
the Europa Cup, the Triple A circuit that grooms racers for the
World Cup. All thanks to two trips as a forerunner. Or maybe not.

In the case of a Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.-type
phenomenon, like Maier, parties are quick to take credit--and
duck blame--for his late arrival. Reiner is happy to describe
himself as the man who discovered the most revolutionary talent
in skiing since Alberto Tomba first powered through slalom
gates, and he surely did help Maier. But Margreiter,
backpedaling from the reality that Maier nearly slipped through
the cracks of the Austrian system (nobody wants to be the jayvee
coach who cut Michael Jordan), says, "We had seen him before he
became a forerunner in Flachau and already decided to put him in
Europa Cup races."

Skiing every week in what Moe calls "some old beat-up Spyder
downhill suit," Maier scorched the Europa Cup circuit, and late
in the 1995-96 season, Margreiter began putting him in World Cup
races; in one, a giant slalom in Kvitfjell, Norway, he finished
11th. Last season, despite his injury, he had four top five
finishes. This season he has been transcendent--with the credit
largely his. "The truth is that he didn't get much help at all,"
says Margreiter. "He's one racer who really, really did a lot on
his own."

Cotton-ball snowflakes fall in the Austrian Alps as Maier sits
and listens to his ascent recounted by others. It's simpler for
him. Ski the hill, race the race. Barely two years ago he was
slopping mortar and setting stones. "To be a bricklayer is a
fine life," he says. "To be a ski racer is a dream."

COLOR PHOTO: PHILLIPE MILLEREAU/AGENCE D.P.P.I. [Hermann Maier skiing] COLOR PHOTO: HANZ F. PUNZ/GEPA PRESSEFOTO [Hermann Maier]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)