Thinking About Machine-Man
"He is for sure not one of us," says a teammate of ski racer Hermann Maier. "He is beyond this world," says a former gold medalist. "He is a beast," they say, and finally, "He is the beast."
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On Friday the 13th of February, the skies over Hakuba, Japan, are at last sun-streaked and cloudless. Up until this morning, these Nagano Olympics seem to have been cursed by the Shinto gods. Not enough snow. Too much snow. Too much fog. Sleet. Rain. There was even an earthquake, a 5.0 temblor — not powerful enough to do any real damage, except, perhaps, to a racer's concentration. The downhill event has been delayed by nearly a week. But this morning, at dawn, the officials tell the Olympians to wax their skis. It's show time.
More AthletesKelly Slater
Hermann Maier, wearing bib number four, is standing in the chute, immersed in the ritualistic tics of the countdown: digging in his skis, planting and replanting his poles. He wears a red-and-white spandex suit and a red crash helmet adorned with the eagle of the Austrian flag. The course, having been machine-spritzed with mist through the night, is now a long neck of blue ice, fast and slick, with the hard glint of chromium.
“I suppose,” Maier says to me when I meet him at his gym in the Austrian Alps, “you're going to want to know all about the sturtz.”
“The sturtz — the crash. The Americans only want to know about the crash. It's all they care about. Violence makes all the headlines in your country.” The 25-year-old champion curls his lip in disgust. “There was an American photographer on the mountain. He didn't say, 'Hey, you all right?' He says, 'Hey, great picture!'”
But it was a great picture. The video of Maier's downhill crash was something like the Zapruder film of the Winter Olympics, microanalyzed for the exact moment of error and the exact moment when bones should have cracked, an alarming sports reel played and replayed in the craven knowledge that all of us, everywhere, especially Americans but probably even well-mannered Austrians, are beady-eyed rubberneckers who can't help ourselves. Here was a piece of footage lurid enough to replace the stale old “agony of defeat” clip at the start of ABC's Wide World of Sports, the one in which Yugoslavian ski jumper Vinko Bogotah endlessly pinwheels down the mountain during a 1970 contest in Obersdorf, West Germany. Maier's sturtz in Nagano was more than just a spectacular wipeout. It was an anarchic burst of kinesis that refreshed our understanding of why alpine skiing is so exciting to watch in the first place: the possibility of pure, white-knuckled calamity, the chaos lurking just behind the scrim of mastery and finesse.
Maier comes from a country where skiing is less a sport than a national science project, a country that produced two of the greatest theoreticians of motion, Ernst Mach and Christian Doppler. To crash, and to crash so crazily, so wantonly, is a most un-Austrian thing to do, and Maier remains deeply unhappy that he will be forever linked to such a messy encounter with the laws of physics. “If you ask me,” Maier says, “I would prefer to be famous for winning two gold medals in Nagano rather than for my screwup.”
Thus chary about going down in history as skiing's Olympic crash-test dummy, Maier has dedicated himself to putting in a steady, chaos-free season on the slopes of the world this winter. He not only aims to win the World Cup overall title for the second year in a row, but also plans to beat Swede Ingemar Stenmark's 1979 record of 13 World Cup victories in a single season and to prevail in a slew of events at the World Championships in Vail next February. And he intends to do it with deliberate and measured rationality. “You better believe it,” he tells me. “I'm done with the crashing.” He says this with a vehemence that protests too much, as if he suspects that certain bad habits can't be extinguished, as hard as one may try.
Besides, the sturtz has been good to Maier. It helped to carry him across a certain invisible line of demarcation into skiing superstardom. “In a way, the crash was the best thing that ever could have happened to him,” says John Garnsey, president of the organizing committee for the 1999 World Championships in Vail and a jury member at Nagano. “If Maier had just won two Olympic golds, he'd be yet another great Austrian skier, known and respected by insiders everywhere, but not a household word — certainly not in this country. To succeed is boring. To fail spectacularly and then succeed — that's really something.”
Maier is visualizing the line he set for himself during his inspection runs, but that was three days ago. In the aftermath of the storms, the course-setters had to pull the gates and then hastily reset them this morning, with no time to allow the skiers to reinspect. The Austrian coaches tell Maier that the course is just as it was before: Proceed as planned, no changes.
Yet in fact the course has changed-in a few places, dramatically so. At the first turn, there's a little bump that didn't exist at the inspection-“the mystery mogul,” it will later be called-and after that a sharp drop-off followed by a gate that will require an abrupt left turn. To make it, Maier will have to pull back a little, stand up on his skis, slow down. But the way this new feature is situated, Maier, moving at nearly 80 miles an hour, won't be able to see it coming.
At some point or another, every skier crashes. look at any expert's knees and you'll see the telltale scars, the butterfly stitches. Racers share a perverse and largely inexpressible addiction to the crapshoot of speed. Among themselves they don't need to talk about it, but when they try to communicate the sport's attraction to others not of the tribe, they have an annoying habit of talking about a thing called “the edge” as if it were a specific geographical place where they do most of their living, some impossibly remote principality tucked away behind distant mountains.
Maier is no exception. “It's true,” he says in his characteristic monotone, “I'm only happy when I'm skiing on the edge. It's the only place where I can be. If you're not there, well, forget about it.”
The difference is that by all accounts, Hermann Maier does push the downhiller's brinkmanship just a little farther than it's ever been pushed. He may train and prepare with cold, methodical thoroughness, but when he gets on a slope his lust for the attack seems to take over. No one skis a tighter line, no one takes it so close to the precipice of disaster. Before the Olympics, some skiers on the World Cup circuit began to suggest that Maier, by always going at such a fearless, full-throttle tilt, was merely flying on the fumes of good luck. To them, what was even more astonishing than his Nagano crash was that it didn't happen sooner.
If nerve were Hermann Maier's only attribute, however, he would not have possessed the means to become the best all-around skier in the world. During last year's World Cup circuit, he won 11 different races in three separate alpine disciplines (giant slalom, Super G, and downhill). Insiders have now begun to say that if Maier can avoid major injuries over the next few years, he could become one of the greats — a versatile champion on par with Jean-Claude Killy. Yes, he takes immense risks, but he can back it all up with such raw power and with such a commanding range of skills that the risks are worth taking.
HIS FELLOW WORLD CUP SKIERS tend to speak of Maier with an awe that's colored by a chilly note of incomprehension, as if they can't quite decide whether Maier is entirely human.
“He is for sure not one of us,” says Austrian teammate Hans Knauss.
“He is on another planet,” says Andreas Schifferer, another Austrian teammate.
Says German downhill gold medalist Katja Seizinger, “He is beyond this world.”
Even Maier's longtime girlfriend, Petra Wechselberger, describes him in similar terms: “He is a machine-man. He is some kind of extraterrestrial.”
This “otherworldly” verdict appears to be virtually unanimous. His peers characterize Maier as a lone wolf, asocial to the core. “A lot of people are intimidated by Maier,” says U.S. gold medalist Tommy Moe. “He's so intense and unfriendly, he's right on the edge of being rude. I've never once seen him say hello to the other skiers, not even a wie gehts. The guy's a robot, man.”
Maier's various nicknames over the course of his short, spectacular career reflect this sense of his being a creature fundamentally apart — not just in terms of skill and manners, but perhaps even metabolically. “The Beast,” they called him at first. Then “the Monster” and “the Alien.” And, of course, the ultimate alias, the one that finally stuck during the Olympics and will probably never go away: “the Hermanator.”
The name fits on so many levels that it's almost uncanny. Like Maier, the cyborg villain played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1984 movie The Terminator possesses an action-figure physique, a calm and relentless efficiency, and an unnerving indestructibility. (“It doesn't feel pity or fear, and it absolutely will not stop — ever.”) Schwarzenegger, of course, was born and raised in Austria. Like Maier, he is a power lifter, motorcycle enthusiast, and serious skier. It made perfect sense when, after the crash, Schwarzenegger publicly adopted Maier as a kind of poster robot of the slopes. “He is the Huh-mahn-nay-tuh,” Schwarzenegger told the CBS television audience during an interview shortly after the crash. “And he'll … be … bahhk. He will tuh-mahn-nate all competition.” Schwarzenegger proved to be right on this score, thus making the nickname seem prophetic.
After the Olympics, Schwarzenegger and Maier appeared together on The Tonight Show — the Hermanator and the Terminator together at last, sealing the connection forever, though that day was the first and only time the two have met.
“You guys look like Hans and Franz from Saturday Night Live,” Jay Leno joked.
“Yes,” Schwarzenegger agreed. “We've come to pump … you … up.”
Maier, looking understandably confused by the reference, smiled a bewildered smile. Changing the subject, the Hermanator observed, to Schwarzenegger's chagrin, that he was only 12 years old when The Terminator was released.
These days, it's difficult to tell whether Maier is cultivating the Hermanator persona when he insists on remaining frustratingly un-emotive, or if he's simply being himself. One day, for example, I asked Maier what he loves about skiing. What, for him, is its essential allure?
“Da speed,” he replied. “I like to go fast.”
OK, but … anything else?
“Ja, I like to win. If I lose, I'm not very happy.”
In the final seconds of the countdown, Maier turns his head to the sky and hyperventilates, his face wreathed in the fog of his own exhalations. The electronic clock dweeps down to zero, and it's time. Maier snarls, and his cold blue eyes bulge fiendishly behind his Carrera goggles. He launches himself in one great heave, skates to pick up speed, and lowers into a full tuck. He's dropping like a stone now, gathering momentum, 30 miles per hour, 40, 50, 60, his skis chattering over the ice. Fifteen seconds into the run, he's still crouched low, his poles clutched tight under his arms, head thrust forward. This is the point where he should be tapping the brakes in anticipation of the first turn, but he doesn't — he's doing 65, 70, 75, and still picking up speed.
To understand Maier's singularity, you have to understand the dreadnought that is the Austrian Ski Federation.
In Nagano, the Austrian men won three of five gold medals and eight of 15 possible medals. Even more amazing, last year they did something that no other national team has done in the 30-year history of the World Cup: Austria took every alpine title there is to take, winning the downhill (Andreas Schifferer), Super G (Maier), giant slalom (Maier), slalom (Thomas Sykora), and the overall title (Maier). In the final World Cup standings, six of the top ten racers were Austrian.
Because his nation is expecting nothing less than an encore performance this year, Maier's time is considered a public asset, a precious commodity that must be husbanded and protected. When I told people in Salzburg that I was going up to the mountains to interview Hermann Maier, they were invariably puzzled. “How can this be?” they would ask. “He is in training.”
Sure enough, when I meet Maier he is in training, spending 60 hours a week working out in the village of Obertauern, a ski resort lofted in a high alpine meadow an hour's drive from Salzburg. The gym where Maier trains, the Olympiastützpunkt, with its halogen-bright hallways, “therapy studios,” and gurgling whirlpool lagoons, is like some technopolitan lair out of a Bond film. While being escorted to meet Maier, I catch glimpses of German heavyweight boxer Axel Schultz sparring and several members of the Japanese national ski team running on treadmills, their chests hooked up to winking banks of heart monitors.
The Hermanator is sitting in the cafée; sipping an apple cider, surrounded by an entourage that includes his trainer, his agent, and the director of tourism for Salzburg. There's a fresh bead of blood on his left ear where the Olympiastützpunkt technicians have just extracted their sample for the daily lab analysis. Maier's dirty-blond hair is sweat-drenched (he's just finished a two-hour ride on a stationary bike), and a long trail of yellow fuzz connects his sideburns to the patchy goatee on his chin.
How are you? I ask.
“The training is going very, very well,” he says in the clipped but sturdy English that he learned years ago while teaching Scandinavian skiers on the slopes above Flachau, his hometown. “I think I've got just the right formula. At the present time, I'm working mostly on the thighs.” The members of his retinue nod their heads in approval.
The anxiety of success is thick in the air. Measured by the high standards of its past glories, Austrian skiing has only recently emerged from a long slump. As consistently good as the Austrian ski teams have been through the years, until Maier's breakthrough last season the country hadn't produced a true international superstar since Franz Klammer (who won his downhill gold in the 1976 Olympics), and it hadn't had an overall World Cup champion since Karl “The Great” Schranz in 1970.
MAIER TRAINS WITH THE CHAMPION'S FEAR, the constant awareness that everyone, including the other Austrian skiers, will be after him this year, that it's all his to lose. Six days a week, he speeds up the narrow serpentine roads from Flachau in his cherry-red BMW Z3 to Obertauern. Working like an automaton, he is intent on proving that he isn't just a single-season phenomenon.
Fame, to Maier, is an annoyance. Shortly after the Olympics, Austrian President Thomas Klestil presented Maier with the Gold Cross, the country's highest honor. Upon Maier's return from the World Cup circuit, the country held a welcoming ceremony in Flachau that was broadcast live to more than a million Austrians. At sunset, the heavens fluoresced with beams of laser light, and Maier wriggled down the slopes on his skis past a crowd of 10,000 villagers, a hero dropping out of the alpenglow like some Wagnerian god.
Maier hated all of it. If it were left up to him, there'd be no media and no fans, no endorsement obligations, no extraneous demands of any kind, only an empty room in which to train and an empty slope on which to prove he's the best skier in the world.
He resents the necessity of being surrounded by so many retainers and attendants — his “baby-sitters,” he calls them. “Believe me,” he confides to me when we have a moment to ourselves out in the Olympiastützpunkt lobby, “being famous hasn't made my life any easier. Every minute I'm dealing with the baby-sitters is one more minute I'm not training.”
Sixteen seconds into the downhill, Maier hits the “mystery mogul” and is pitched a few feet into the air. He lands on his skis, but he's slightly out of kilter now and moving far too fast to make the steep left turn. He attempts a final, desperate correction, but it's too late. Maier sails over a little lip and plunges into a pockmark in the snow, his left ski snagging in the crust. And then, as if he has struck some invisible trip wire on a trebuchet buried in the mountain, Maier is catapulted into the blue skies of Japan.
Ski racing is a sport that knows few genuine surprises or upstarts, and this is especially true in Austria, where the best skiers are singled out at the age of 10 or 12 and given all the cosseting and technical support that the planet's most advanced skiing nation can lavish upon them.
Only two years ago, Hermann Maier was a relative nobody, an unpedigreed skier embarking on his first full season on the World Cup tour. He was an outcast throughout his teens and early 20s, a dark horse working in obscurity while his peers got the thoroughbred treatment. “He didn't do it the Austrian way, that's for sure,” says Fritz Vallant, a coach for the Austrian national team. “He is the only one I know of who did it all on his own.”
Flachau, a 750-year-old town of steep-roofed wood-and-stucco chalets and hexed barns and onion-domed churches, lacks the glamour of vaunted Tirolean resorts like St. Anton or Kitzbühel. Locals ski, or teach skiing, whenever they're not cleaning out stables or milking the Pinzgauer cows. The only industry of note is the headquarters of the Atomic ski company.
Hermann Maier Sr. and his wife, Gertraud, still operate the ski school they've run for 35 years, the same one where Hermann Jr. learned to schuss at the age of three. By the age of six he was already winning races. “He never liked to lose,” says Frau Maier. “If he did, you had to leave him alone. You couldn't cheer him up.”
But there was always one serious problem: He was way too small. At 16 he still weighed only 110 pounds. When he was 17, he shot up nine inches in a single year, but the spurt left him gawky, and the national coaches remained unimpressed.
Maier took a job as a bricklayer in Flachau and, after undergoing the rigorous certification process required before one can teach skiing in Austria, became an instructor at his parents' school during the winter. He'd rise at dawn, before the tourists took over the steeps, and bound up the mountain for a few quick runs on a giant slalom course he'd set himself. When he was 18, Maier did his compulsory military service, a six-month stint during which he lifted a lot of weights and endlessly ran through the Alps with a grenade launcher strapped to his back. Along the way, he'd been steadily bulking up, hitting 180 pounds by the age of 20. He never gave up his determination to compete at the top level, and in October 1995, vowing to make his mark as a professional ski racer, he laid his last brick.
In January 1996, a World Cup giant slalom race was held in Flachau. All the elite athletes from the international ski world had landed on Maier's doorstep, and Hermann was asked to be a “forerunner,” which simply meant he would ski the giant slalom course before the race in order to help the officials work out the bugs. His first run out of the gate, Maier clocked a time of 2:20:19, which proved to be just one second behind Alberto Tomba, who was then the best skier on the World Cup circuit.
In a matter of weeks he won the EuropaCup title, and at last gained a spot on the Austrian team. A year later, in his first World Cup downhill race, at Chamonix, he crashed and broke his left arm. He was still wearing a cast the following month when he won his first World Cup victory, in the Super G at Garmisch, Germany, and at the advanced age of 24 he was named skiing's Rookie of the Year.
“He's old,” says Vallant, “but his head is fresh.”
VAULTING HEAVEWARD, with a stout tailwind that seems to have picked up where his own kinetic force left off, Maier thinks,”You just lost the gold medal.” For a brief moment he appears to be flying gracefully, as though it's still possible that he could stick his landing and redeem his mistake, but then, as he reaches the apogee of his arc, it becomes clear that the trajectory is all wrong. Training, technique, and force of will mean nothing now. Maier furiously windmills his arms in a futile attempt to right himself; he's going head over heels, tumbling through space, on his way down toward the icy hardpack.
Maier tells me that his schedule may permit him to accept my invitation to take him and his girlfriend out to dinner later in the week.
To pass the time, I take to watching the “Wetterpanorama” broadcast on Austria's TV 1, a show that's composed entirely of live feeds from one gorgeous alpine valley after another, a continuous spool of real-time vistas from Glocknerstrasse to Saalbach-Hinterglemm. On mountain summits all across Austria, TV cameras perpetually swivel back and forth, robotically capturing the scenery — dells, lakes, glaciers, snow-dusted peaks — in a droning metronomic gaze, 365 days a year. “Wetterpanorama” is both mind-numbingly dull and hypnotic, an ordered synthesis of nature and technology that seems essentially Austrian.
On the evening we've agreed to go out to dinner together, Petra Wechselberger swings by my hotel and rescues me from another “Wetterpanorama” session. She picks me up in Hermann's new, cobalt-blue BMW 325 convertible, and as soon as I hop in, she gives me the bad news.
“Hermann says he's sorry but he can't come,” she announces. “He hates to go out to restaurants — too many people.”
We drive over to an Italian place in the next dorp. Heads start to turn as we walk in, and gradually it dawns on me that people think we're on a date. It doesn't bother Petra. “They say Hermann and I aren't getting along anymore,” she says. “There are rumors we're breaking up.”
Petra is 24 and has long brown hair and a flawless olive complexion. She's a kindergarten teacher in town. “The kids tremble when they see Hermann,” she says. “They look up at him in fear.” She began dating Maier when she was 15.
Petra tells me she wants to get married and have children once Hermann's racing days are over. Clearly, however, she's growing impatient. “He trains and trains until he can no longer see straight, until he can no longer stand up,” she says. “At the end of the day, he'll call me and say, 'Please, please, I'm so hungry!' He wants his food waiting when he arrives.”
What's he like to eat?
“Macaroni and cheese most of all,” she says. “He'll put away three plate-loads and then collapse in front of the TV.”
What's he like to watch?
“Mr. Bean cracks him up. Mostly, he likes action movies. He says anything with Stallone is good.”
What music does he like?
“He doesn't like music.”
Does he go out with friends?
“He doesn't have friends, really, not close ones. Ever since he was a little boy, he's never been the type of person who needs other people.”
Does he ever go skiing, you know, just for fun?
“That's the last thing he'd ever do. In the 10 years I've known him, we've skied together four times.”
Petra sighs and fixes a hollow gaze on the menu. “The years have just gone by,” she says. “He's always exhausted. He never wants to go anywhere. He never wants to spend money or have fun. He just wants to train. Back and forth, back and forth, between Flachau and the gym. Sometimes I think the man is some kind of an alien.”
His left shoulder and the back of his head make the initial contact. There is a concussive crunch and then a messy clatter of flying ski poles and snapped bindings. He bounces, somersaults, skids 50 feet before smashing into one snow fence, flips once more, and plows through another snow fence. It seems to go on forever. He pinwheels two more times and then lands face-first in the deep snow along the margins.
After a few long, motionless moments, Maier pulls himself to his knees. Although he is in excruciating pain, he has the presence of mind to wag an index finger at a camera, so that his mother, back in Flachau, will know he's OK. He stands up, brushes off the snow, and flexes his shoulder to make sure nothing is broken. He waves away the worried officials, clicks back in, and skis the rest of the way down the mountain.
He has a bruised sternum, a dislocated left shoulder, a badly bruised disk in his lower back, and contusions everywhere. His right knee is soon hideously swollen, but early the next morning, Maier is back on a stationary bike, still training, still getting ready for the next race …
Three days after the crash, Maier astonished the world, first by showing up at the Olympic Super G course at all and then by winning it by a half-second margin. Three days after that, he won a second gold, this time in the giant slalom.
Maier watched the videotape of his Olympic crash for the first time over the summer, having forsworn a viewing all spring for fear it would affect his last few World Cup performances. His reaction was curious. Instead of being amused or horrified, he became cross with himself, irritated at his own negligence.
“I see the video and I say only one thing,” he told me. “That man is out of order!”