Feeling the adrenaline pump through his veins, Hermann Maier had no plans of slowing down as he raced down Mount Karamatsu in Hakuba, just a short trip from the host city Nagano at the 1998 Winter Olympics. Skiing at nearly 75 mph, Maier went too fast around the bend, going airborne 30 feet high before landing on his right shoulder and head. Momentum kept Maier spiraling away from the course as he rammed through two fences, somersaulting until he lied face-first in the snow. Gate seven of the downhill race could have ended Hermann Maier’s young career, but instead it launched his career into new heights.
Maier’s path to Olympic competition was an unorthodox route. The Austrian skier began his training at a young age, but he had the benefit of training at a ski academy owned by his father. Where Maier’s track differs: Shortly after being recruited to attend the prestigious Schladming ski academy, he was sent home because he was too small at age 15. Throughout his adolescence, Maier had Osgood Schlatter disease, a knee condition that was common in teenage boys who frequently competed athletically. The growth disorder had weakened his knees down and stunted his development.
Determined to keep skiing, Maier competed regionally in Austria while working as a bricklayer and teaching at his father’s skiing academy. At age 22, he finally earned a spot on the Austrian national team and began skiing in the World Cup during the 1997 season. He won his first race in February 1997, before breaking out early in the 1998 season and winning 10 races leading up to the Olympic Games at Nagano.
Of the three disciplines Maier competed in the Olympic Games, downhill was the first event. Weather postponed the event three separate times until Feb. 13, five days late. Even then, officials delayed the event 50 minutes due to the daunting weather conditions.
Maier started strong through the first six gates. As Maier took the turn, he flew off the mountain and soared over 30 feet in the air.
A nasty landing on his shoulder and head slowed down his tumbling body as he flung off the course. Miraculously, he was able to get up under his own power, surviving one of the nastiest crashes in Olympic history without major injury.
“If he had been going 10 miles per hour slower, he could have turned in the air,” said former U.S. national team skier and NBC Sports reporter, Steve Porino, to The New York Times. “But at that speed, he just went shooting off into space.”
There were 15 skiers who did not finish the downhill race; 14 of those faced their downfalls on gate 7.
Jean-Luc Cretier won his first and only gold in the downhill event at age 31; it was his only podium appearance in four Olympics.
“Today you had to ski with your head,” Cretier told Sports Illustrated after the race. “Not your legs.”
Maier’s next event was the super-G, which was scheduled to be the following morning after the downhill event. But due to fog and rain, Maier was spared two days to rest his body.
“The first day after the crash it was impossible for me to walk,” he recalled to The Telegraph. “By the third day my shoulder was still very sore, but nothing was going to stop me from racing.”
Once Maier passed the first few gates, he started to regain form, cruising through the slope earning a time of 1:34.82, worthy of a gold medal by a wide margin of .61 seconds.
“You cannot really put this in perspective, to have such a great race after such a bad crash,” recalled his coach Werner Margreiter to Sports Illustrated. “I can’t compare it to anything.”
Three days after winning super-G gold, and six days after his downhill crash, Maier won his second gold medal in the giant slalom. He would leave Nagano as one of two skiers to win two gold medals, along with Katja Seizinger of Germany.
He became a worldwide celebrity for his heroic comeback. “The Herminator” became a popular nickname for the skier due to Austrian actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his film series “The Terminator,” as well as his fast and violent skiing style. The two celebrities made a joint appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1998.
His success continued after Nagano, as he earned two gold medals at the 1999 World Championships and as well as sustained victories in the World Cup circuit through the 2000 season. Maier suffered a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 2001. Maier nearly had lost his right leg, but instead had massive reconstructive surgery that forced him to miss two seasons of skiing.
The Herminator would make an astonishing comeback to skiing in 2003, winning his first World Cup race just two weeks after returning to the mountain. He earned one more gold medal in the 2005 World Championships in giant slalom.
Prepared and unafraid, Maier returned to Olympic competition in 2006, eight years after winning two golds. He would earn a silver medal in the super-G and a bronze medal in the giant slalom, giving him four career Olympic medals.
Maier retired in 2009 with 54 World Cup race victories, ranked second all-time behind Ingemar Stenmark, as well as four World Cup overall titles and four Olympic medals. His combination of aggressive style, with speed and precision was rare for the sport.
“He is for sure not one of us,” Austrian teammate and silver medalist Hans Knauss told Outside Magazine.
“He is on another planet,” said Andreas Schifferer, another teammate of Maier’s following the 1998 Olympics.