Maier the man at Beaver Creek
BEAVER CREEK – It’s terribly trite, but it has been an honor. Hermann Maier is one of the greatest to grace the world of sports. (I hate the verb “to grace,” but it applies here.)
Maier won 54 World Cup races before announcing his retirement Tuesday at 36. He finishes only behind Sweden’s Igemar Stenmark (86). Maier ended up with four overall titles, second all-time. He won 13 races in one season (2000-01), tying Stenmark for the record.
Proficient in everything but slalom, Maier owns the super-G record with 24 wins. Yes, it’s a relatively new discipline, but that mark will stand for quite while, given that only 11 other racers in World Cup history have 24 total wins.
And then there are the crashes. The first came during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in the downhill. It landed him on the cover of “Sports Illustrated.” What ski-racing fans remember is that he came back in those Games to win gold in the super-G and the giant slalom.
Then there was the motorcycle accident in 2001 when he nearly lost his leg. He didn’t return to the circuit until January 2003 and proceeded to win 14 more World Cup races, thank you very much.
As it turned out, the arc of Maier’s career coincided with the creation of a new speed venue in our backyard – Birds of Prey. Eight of Maier’s 54 career wins came at Beaver Creek. From Dec. 6, 1997-Dec. 2, 2000, it was almost comical. Maier won seven-straight starts at the Beav’.
Nobody does that.
The win streak here though does not do him justice. In 27 starts at Beaver Creek – not counting the 2007 super combined when he used the downhill as a training run and did not start the slalom, a common practice for speed skiers – he was in the top-20 26 times.
He finished in the top 10 at Birds of Prey in an astonishing 20 of 27 races, and made 12 podium appearances.
As we say farewell to the Herminator, a few memories from him at the Birds of Prey:
• Maier did not win the first race here … or the second. Italy’s Kristian Ghedina won the first downhill on Dec. 4, 1997. The next day, Austrian Andreas Shifferer won a DH. Maier was ninth and second, respectively, in those races. On the third day of racing in 1997, he then won the first super-G held on the hill, starting his streak of seven-straight wins here.
• At the 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships, aka Vail ’99, Maier captured super-G gold, tying with Norway’s Lasse Kjus with a time of 1 minute, 14.53 seconds, a stunning mathematical occurrence. Poor Hans Knauss finish one-hundredth of the leaders and had to settle for bronze.
The most-awkward moment came in the post-race news conference when an American reporter asked Maier, “Is a tie like kissing your sister?” After some painful silence since Maier didn’t understand the idiom at first, he deftly replied, “I have no sisters. Only brothers.”
• Then-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was at Vail ’99 to root on Maier. (Arnold’s much shorter in person.) So we had the Terminator watching the Herminator, not knowing that the former was going to be the Gorvern-ator in a few years.
• Perhaps Maier’s sweetest win at Birds of Prey came on Dec. 6, 2003. Two years after the motorcycle accident, he had returned to the top of the podium at his home away from home after watching the 2002 Birds of Prey on television.
“My friend opened the bar, and I watched the race, and drank some beer. I thought, maybe, it will never be possible to ski again on this level,” Maier told the Vail Daily. “Just one year later, I have won this race. It’s a big dream for me. It’s changed a lot from last year to this year.”
• Maier almost didn’t make the North American swing of the World Cup last year. In a last-minute decision, he came. He won super-G at Lake Louise, Alberta, and then arrived here for what turned out to be one last hurrah.
Norway’s Aksel Lund-Svindal won the downhill, his second win in as many days in a triumphant return to Beaver Creek after a horrific wipeout in training here one year ago ended his 2007-08 season. But Maier’s second-place finish in the downhill almost overshadowed Svindal’s win.
Maier was gracious in what ended up being his second-to-last race at Beaver Creek.
“I guess he’s – how do you call it – (my) successor. He can step in my (shoes) or better ones.”
Sorry, Hermann. Your shoes are too big.
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 or email@example.com.