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Germany's Gerg, Austria's Maier Are Golden

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 1998; Page C1

 Italy's Alberto Tomba passes a gate before crashing into a security fence in the men's giant slalom.
(Luca Bruno/AP)
SHIGA KOGEN, Japan, Feb. 19 (Thursday) — Alberto Tomba has dubbed Austrian skier Hermann Maier "cool" and anointed him as the future of the sport the Italian star once dominated. Today on Mount Higashidate, Tomba watched as Maier mastered the Olympic giant slalom course that drove him into a green safety net and out of the race.

Skiing like a wild man despite the treacherous conditions, Maier captured the gold medal with a combined time of 2 minutes 38.51 seconds, which was almost a full second faster than his closest competitor. Teammate Stefen Eberharter took the silver with a time of 2:39.36, followed by Switzerland's Michael Von Gruenigen, who finished in 2:39.69.

"I am so happy, and sorry about my downhill [crash]," said Maier, who was favored to win gold medals in all three events. "But I'm so happy with two medals. It's wonderful."

On nearby Mount Yakebitai, Germany's Hilde Gerg survived a slick course to capture the women's slalom in a combined time of 1:32.40 for two runs, edging Italy's Deborah Compagnoni by six-hundredths of a second. Compagnoni finished the course in 1:32.46, and Australia's Zali Steggall took the bronze.

American hope Kristina Koznick, a 22-year-old from Minnesota, did not finish the race. After a disappointing first run that left her in ninth place, Koznick straddled a gate and was disqualified in her second trip down the slippery mountain. She was not alone in her disappointment. Seven of the first 10 skiers down the slalom course crashed or missed gates during today's second run.

"I held back and I had no reason to hold back," Koznick said of her first run. "I was really upset that I didn't ski as fast as I know I can. I knew I had to prove myself the second run and I tried."

Tomba, too, found the mountains at Shiga Kogen difficult to navigate — he lost control coming off the turn on the eighth gate of his first run, spun wildly, then flew into the green safety net along the course, landing on his back. Tomba, who was wearing a back brace, said he was not injured and still planned to compete in the men's slalom here Saturday morning. The five-time Olympic medalist is hoping to win a medal in his third straight Olympics when he competes in that event.

"I pushed too hard to win a medal," said the 31-year-old Tomba, who had legions of fans here, including many dressed in "La Bomba Fan Club" parkas. "In the Olympic Games, you have to go all or nothing."

 Austria's Hermann Maier wins his second gold medal of the Olympics.
(Luca Bruno/AP)

Maier, 25, already knows plenty about the all-or-nothing ski mentality, which is perhaps why Tomba likes him so much. After suffering a stunning crash in the men's downhill on Feb. 13 — he flipped four times at a speed near 70 miles per hour and crashed through three fences — Maier recovered to capture the gold first in the men's super giant slalom on Monday, then the gold in the giant slalom today.

Described in the past as a man who "seems ready to eat the first gate," Maier looked as if he were on the brink of a wipeout throughout both of his runs today, and very nearly flew off the course midway through his first trip down the mountain. With a huge crowd of Austrian fans screaming and whistling and pounding drums, Maier flew down the course on his second run, barely clearing several gates, and then soared across the finish line.

"I was charging," he said. "Always in the second run, I must ski to the limit. This course, it was wonderful, good to ski."

Maier then looked up at the video screen and saw that his time had bested that of his buddy Eberharter, and he threw up both his ski poles in celebration. In the stands, Austrian fans mobbed each other and waved banners that read "Das Monster" and were painted with pink elephants on skis. "He is cool," Tomba said of the man who has been nicknamed "The Herminator" and who has become almost as popular as "The Terminator" — Austrian movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger — in his homeland, thanks to his Olympic heroics.

Tomba today joked that he "went out like Hermann Maier" after his crash, noting that he — like the world — had seen the footage of Maier's incredible crash. And he was upbeat about his chances to medal in the slalom, where he hopes to add to the two gold and three silver medals already in his trophy case.

Koznick was not as easily consoled. Considered a medal favorite in the women's slalom, she sat on the mountain after she straddled the gate late in her second run, then walked slowly to the bottom. And then this day Koznick had pointed toward for more than a decade got worse. Olympic officials randomly selected her for a drug test.

"Just to top off my day," Koznick said. "Now I've got to go pee in front of everyone."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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