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It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Sup-Hermann

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, February 14, 1998; Page H1

 A ski crash at more than 70 mph? No problem for The Herminator, who simply walks away, rubbing a sore shoulder. (Rudi Blaha/AP)
NAGANO — The Tough Man contest is over.


The winner is Hermann Maier.

In the single most incredible thing to happen in this or just about any other Olympic Games, Hermann Maier lived.

Now I know why they call him "Das Monster." And "The Herminator." Legend has it that before he became perhaps the best skier in the world today, Maier was a bricklayer in Austria. I'd submit that Maier is tougher than any brick he ever laid.

All the evidence ever needed is the videotape of Maier flying, then crashing, then flipping, then tumbling down that mountain in nearby Hakuba at speeds of more than 70 mph Friday morning, then rising to walk away from the scene, simply rubbing his shoulder as if all he'd done was slept funny on the pillow.

You know the long-running clip of that ski jumper plunging perilously on the opening of ABC's "Wide World of Sports" that has come to symbolize "the agony of defeat"? We're so used to it now, it's almost like some guy stumbling off a curb compared to Maier's propulsion. ABC should simply take it off the air now because Maier's fall, or whatever you want to call it, is the most spectacular human crash ever seen. Not the "worst" crash, mind you; people have died in Alpine competition. But Maier's crash seems to have unanimously won Most Spectacular. To crash any worse, you'd have to fall out of a plane and have your parachute not open.

To recap: The wind was blowing so hard that workers had to reduce the height of the first jump; one of the forerunners (the skiing version of a food-taster) had almost flown off the mountain minutes earlier. Most often, it's scrubs you see crashing out of control. Maier, some folks thought, could win three gold medals.

But early in his run he lost control in the gusting wind and just lifted off like the Flying Nun. And he kept going, 75, maybe 100 yards, like a man being shot out of a cannon at one of those state fairs in the 1930s. The Wright Brothers didn't fly as far at Kitty Hawk as Maier up on that mountain. By the way, did I mention that he landed on his head? At 70 mph. Then he bounced. Then he flipped. Four times, head over heels. Four complete revolutions. (Let's see Elvis Stojko complete that quad!) Then he crashed through two fences before coming, at last, to a stop facedown in the snow.

Before going any further, I'll admit I thought at that precise moment: "I'm watching a man die."

But all of a sudden, shaken not stirred, Das Monster pushed himself up like Jason in those "Friday the 13th" movies and walked back up the hill!

Look, if he'd died it would have been one thing. We'd all be walking around in hushed tones. But the guy skied this morning, less than 24 hours later. Hey, don't tell me about NASCAR or IndyCar crashes. This guy didn't have a steel box around him; all he had were his skivvies and a layer of spandex. The world's No. 1 expert on Olympic competition, author David Wallechinsky, said, "No question, Maier goes in the pantheon." In our little office here at the Main Press Center, we were sitting in front of the TV 12 hours after the crash screaming, "Show it again!!!" having already seen it 25 times.

I'm sorry, but that's my gold medal moment for these Games and nothing can replace it. Word is, you the poor TV viewer back at home actually saw it live, too. CBS decided to show something other than figure skating, or figure skating practice, or figure skating interviews.

Thankfully, two things have delivered me from figure skating: Das Monster and hockey. No, not NHL hockey, silly. Olympic hockey: big ice, no holding, no fighting, all skills all the time.

Anybody who thought this competition was a set-up to ultimately match the United States with Canada hasn't been paying attention. Sweden is the defending Olympic champion. Sweden's 4-2 victory over the U.S. in the first game of the tournament involving the Big Boys doesn't mean anything immediately (though it does mean more than Canada beating Belarus). But what is important is that the U.S. players were reminded they can play only one style and when they stray from it, they're doomed.

The Americans played a great first period, got lulled into thinking they had European skills, and got popped. "We got mesmerized by what the Swedes were doing," Colorado's Adam Deadmarsh said, "and thought, 'Hey, we're going to do this, too.' But they're a lot more skilled than we are. We've got to bang in rebounds, drive to the net, get traffic in front of the net, use our bigger bodies to bang them. ... "

Chicago's Chris Chelios had much the same assessment, saying, "If we let them play that game, they're going to dominate. We've got to take them out of that. ... We've got to be physical, dump the puck, forecheck, not be making the fancy plays."

In other words, play North American hockey.

The issue is this: Can a team playing stereotypical North American hockey win a tournament in a field packed with pass-and-skate wizards like Sweden, Finland, the Czechs and Russia? Canada may be located in North America, but Gretzky and Joe Sakic give it some versatility the U.S. team doesn't have.

The U.S. players say the answer is to check harder, dump-chase more, and be tougher along the boards. The Swedes say that style probably won't work. "I don't believe that," Derian Hatcher of Dallas responded. "Yes, I think the Europeans have an advantage because they grew up playing together, and on the larger ice. But yes, I think our style, if we throw everything into it, can win."

It's not like anybody's panicking after one loss in a tournament where you can't be eliminated for three more games. But St. Louis's Brett Hull shed more than a little light on the style issue, and something else that may determine how the U.S. team plays here.

"I'm one of the best at downplaying pressure," Hull said. "But if you want to be really realistic, there's a lot of pressure on us. The expectations to do well are coming from within and that's the most difficult."

Asked if it's also going to be difficult to implement their more physical style on the wider table of ice in a tournament where clutching and grabbing is penalized consistently, Hull said, "It's going to be difficult, but we have to do it."

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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