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Maier Roars to Gold; Street Sixth in Downhill

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 1998; Page C1

 Hermann Maier arrived in Nagano with a reputation for being unbeatable and now is known for being indestructible as well. (Elise Amendola/AP)
HAKUBA, Japan, Feb. 16 (Monday) — Three days after surviving a horrific crash on the men's downhill course at the 1998 Winter Olympics, Austrian skier Hermann Maier made himself into an Olympic legend with a stunning victory in the men's super giant slalom this morning on Happo'one.

Maier — who suffered knee and shoulder injuries in a crash in the men's downhill that many observers feared, upon first look, might be fatal — skied today's course with perhaps a touch less than his usual aggression but still managed to finish in 1 minute 34.82 seconds to capture the gold medal by more than a half second. Switzerland's Didier Cuche and Austria's Hans Knauss tied for the silver with a time of 1:35.43.

"Today, I wasn't that aggressive, because it was hard for me after the big crash, tough crash," said Maier, whose trademark daredevil style surely contributed to his accident. "Today was a bit of a problem on the mental aspect to be aggressive. I needed to get through the first gate."

Maier's race was run after numerous weather-related postponements and cancellations that had left the schedule of Alpine skiing events in total disarray. Minutes after the completion of the Super-G, the women finally competed in the downhill on an adjacent mountain, where American Picabo Street — admittedly skiing cautiously because of the conditions — finished a disappointing sixth in an event she had hoped to dominate.

 Picabo Street is consoled by a friend after her sixth-place run in the downhill. (David Phillip/AP)
Street, who had a surprising gold medal showing in the women's Super-G last week, ran the course in 1:29.54. The race was won by German Katja Seizinger in 1:28.29, with Sweden's Pernilla Wiberg capturing the silver and France's Florence Masnada the bronze.

It was a good day for Seizinger and Wiberg, who posted the two fastest times in the downhill portion of the women's combined event. Renate Goetschl of Austria, who crashed during the downhill, was third. The second round of the combined — two slalom runs — is Tuesday morning (Monday night EST).

The man of the hour, though, was Maier, who arrived at these Olympics with a reputation for being unbeatable and now is known for being indestructible as well. Nicknamed "The Herminator" and "Das Monster," Maier is unequivocally the greatest skier in the world at this moment, and after three days of endless replays of his crash on worldwide television, his performance today only added to his aura.

In a crash that many skiing observers have described as the most spectacular — and frightening — they've ever seen in competition, Maier hit a bump on the downhill course while skiing at a speed upwards of 65 mph and pinwheeled through two fences and into a third. He landed head-first in the snow. He then shocked observers by picking himself up, brushing the flakes from his body, and rotating his shoulder as if he had merely a minor bruise. Afterward, he walked 200 meters back up the hill.

"I heard I must walk back up very quickly so the next one can start," Maier said, shrugging his shoulders, when asked today how he had managed the feat. "I had no time to look at my body first."

Maier injured his right knee — it was still swollen today — and his left shoulder, but refused to drop out of the Super-G and also is planning to race in the giant slalom later this week. According to Knauss, his friend and teammate, Maier and the other Austrian skiers were making jokes about the crash as soon as Maier returned to the team hotel in one piece, and he never doubted that he would be back in the gate.

"Hermann has a lot of self-confidence," Knauss said. "Two days after the crash I talked to him and he's the old Maier again. But it's unbelievable after a crash like that to come back 110 percent. ... When it comes to a crash like this, mentally there's something really in your head so you can't give 100 percent."

 Katja Seizinger (right) won the downhill, followed by Sweden's Pernilla Wiberg (left). The two finished in the same order in the opening round of the combined. (David Phillip/AP)
A former bricklayer ("My last brick was on October 26, 1995, at 3 p.m.!" he announced happily this afternoon), Maier was the rookie of the year on the World Cup circuit in 1997 and has not lost a Super-G race this year. His domination of the competition made him as close to a sure bet for a gold in today's event as anyone in any competition at the Nagano Olympics — until the crash, that is. And he acknowledged today that the weather-related delays (this event was supposed to be run on Saturday morning, the day after the crash) allowed him more time to heal.

Though Maier did spend the past few days joking about the crash with his friends and teammates, he has yet to watch it on videotape, and has admitted that "maybe I'm scared." He has likened his sail through the air to being on Lufthansa, without the actual plane. Today, he was asked if he would have been safer in a car, given that he estimated his own speed at between 65-70 miles per hour. He paused for a minute, and then laughed.

"Maybe a tank," he replied.

Maier wasn't the only skier to approach today's long-delayed races with a bit of caution — Street admitted that her sixth-place finish was a result of her own decision not to ski with her usual abandon on the bumpy and rain-slicked course.

After spending more than a year recovering from major knee surgery, Street knew she had neither the self-confidence nor enough recent training runs to ski this particular course with her usual speed.

"For me, it wasn't worth risking my health to get down here and either get a medal or hit the fence," said Street, who declared her Olympics an unqualified success. "That's when my lack of training and lack of time really came into play. I've hit the fence too many times this year already."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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