Olympic Stories

Herman Maier The Crash that Catapulted a Legend

Herman Maier  The Crash that Catapulted a Legend

As people, we judge athletes on standards which exceed speed, agility and overall performance. We look at the grit of an athlete. Like a rugby player going forward with a bloody face, or a football star hobbling his or her way around the pitch with a twisted ankle, we appreciate the determination of athletes as much as their athletic prowess.

During the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, the world found new appreciation for Herman Maier, whose terrifying crash turned into a heroic triumph of monumental proportions.

The Early Life of Herman Maier

Born on December 7, 1972 in Altenmarkt im Pongua, Salzburg, Herman Maier is an Austrian alpine ski racer who boasts multiple World Cup Titles, 2 Olympic Gold medals, and 54 World Cup race wins. Maier started racing at an early age, but when he was only 15, he was actually sent home by the Schladming ski academy for being too small. Even after becoming a champion in Tyrol and Salzburg, Herman still couldn’t earn a spot on the very competitive Austrian World Cup team.

Maier didn’t make his country’s national team until the age of 23, in 1996. Though he was a fast, frenetic and fantastic skier, most still viewed him as too small, too amateurish, and, at this point, perhaps even too old to make any waves in the Olympics. Not only would Maier prove the naysayers wrong at the 1998 Olympic Games, but he would do so in dramatic fashion.

Maier’s Crash and Continuance in the Olympics

The lead-up for the ’98 Games in Japan was very tense, especially considering the sheer amount of talent in the skiing category. Though it isn’t a platform like the X Games, skiers are still traveling at blazing speeds and need to navigate tricky courses, make hairpin turns, and always keep their balance and wits about them. It’s an incredibly dangerous activity, and as Herman Maier would find out during the downhill race on February 13, one wrong move can send you catapulting toward your death.

On a seemingly ordinary downhill run, where Maier was making great time, something went very wrong. In an instant, Maier was flung more than 30 feet into the air, quickly diving toward the barricades below. He landed directly on his helmet, flipped and tumbled multiple times, ran quickly through two separate safety fences (B-netting), and appeared for a moment to be crucially injured if not dead.

Maier had crashed at an estimated 80 miles per hour, which is more than enough to shatter bone. However, after a few moments of terrifying silence, Maier began not only to move but to actually get up and walk away. He had a team of medical professionals there, of course, but Herman appeared to be just fine after one of the most brutally visual crashes in Olympic history.

Maier’s crash was the human body’s equivalent of an Indy Car (or F1 car) crash. It was that fast; it was that incredibly violent. That he wasn’t injured was enough of a miracle in itself, but that was only half the story.

Only a few days later, Maier’s name was on the programs to compete in the super-G and the giant slalom events. He had only suffered very minor injuries from a terrifying crash, and the bravery he displayed by simply competing was enough to make the sports world take notice. All over the news, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and everyone’s new favorite warrior, Maier didn’t have to win to prove his greatness. Competing was more than enough.

Not only did Maier place second overall in the downhill race that had nearly cost him his life, but he won Olympic Gold in the Super-G and the Giant slalom events. He would go on the next year to repeat that gold-winning feat in the World Championships, and even return in 2006 to the Olympics to win a silver and bronze medal in his favorite events respectively. But Maier will forever be remembered for surviving that crash and continuing on to secure his number-one spot in 1998.

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