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Austria Rejoicing at Maier’s Gold

February 20, 1998

FLACHAU, Austria (AP) _ Elsewhere, they call him the Herminator, the Alien, the Beast, ``Das Monster.″

But to the tiny skiing village that produced him, double Olympic gold medalist and crash artist extraordinaire Hermann Maier is just plain hometown Hermann, regular fellow.

``He’s a normal guy,″ insists Eugen Fischbacher, owner of a hotel in Flachau.

Sleep is scarce in the Austrian Alps village these days. For nights on end, much of the population has sat in front of TV screens, watching live coverage from Nagano long after midnight and then celebrating Maier’s victories at impromptu parties spilling into the daylight hours.

With gold medals in the giant slalom and super-G, not to mention the fact he’s a shoo-in to capture the overall World Cup title, Maier is the hottest thing to come out of Flachau in its 750 years.

And good for business, too.

For a resort like Flachau, with its 2,200 residents and 7,000 hotel beds, ``it’s the best promotion you can get,″ Fischbacher said. ``Clients are able to see themselves in Hermann Maier.″

Actually, it may take a bit of Walter Mitty to picture yourself in the Herminator’s ski boots.

As one Austrian commentator said, if Hollywood produced a film on Maier’s life, no one would believe it was true _ he has gone from a struggling also-ran in Austria to the world’s top skier in under two years. Some experts have even called him arguably the best skier of the past 20 years.

A late-blooming 25-year-old, Maier first fastened on a pair of skis at 3 at his parents’ ski school in Flachau, about 30 miles south of Salzburg.

By the time he was 6, he was racing against other children his age.

``When he wasn’t first, he always behaved very badly,″ his father, ski instructor Hermann Maier Sr., said with a smile.

Even as a youngster, the Maier had a dream. ``When I was a child, I told my mother I wanted to start at the Olympics,″ he recalled before the Nagano Games.

With his natural talent, the young athlete was enrolled in Austria’s special high school for promising skiers. But at age 15, a bad knee and his small size forced him out.

It’s hard to imagine today, with his broad shoulders and bulging muscles, but back then Maier was a 110-pound weakling. His schoolmates outweighed him by 50 pounds. He had good endurance, but struggled to lift weights.

He went to trade school and became a bricklayer, getting plenty of practice toting bags of cement and stacks of bricks. In the winter he hit the slopes, training early in the morning, then teaching skiing the rest of the day at his parents’ school. Weekends were spent competing in regional races.

``I never forgot to train,″ Maier said. ``I always thought I wanted to be back on the Austrian national team.″

But that was easier said than done. In 1995 he wanted to participate in the national championships in giant slalom, but because he wasn’t a member of the Austrian Ski Federation, he nearly was kept off the course.

Only pressure from the head of his local ski association landed him a starting place. Maier began dead last, at number 141, but finished up the day in 17th.

It took more pushing from local officials, but last year Maier was allowed to ski in Europa Cup events. His strong showing landed him a spot on this season’s World Cup team.

``Not many people can say they helped Hermann Maier,″ head coach Werner Margreiter said. ``Most things he did all by himself.″

Victory after victory piled up this season, and coupled with his aggressive style and somewhat wild-eyed look, Maier earned a slew of nicknames from the Austrian and international press. During the Olympics, where he came in with a legitimate shot at four gold medals, they have only been reinforced.

In his first event, the men’s downhill, Maier went from the sports page to the front page of newspapers all over the world _ by crashing.

Flying off the course between the seventh and eighth turns, he rocketed through the air for 30 yards, landed on his head and tumbled through two safety fences and into a third. It was so terrifying even the fearless Maier has avoided watching video replays of it.

But he walked away with only a big headache and sore shoulder and knee.

Three days later, he was back and as determined as ever, racing down the course at breakneck speed for a gold in the men’s super-G. He added his second gold three days after that, on Thursday.

``It was really a dream come true,″ his father said.

Three more races remain in the World Cup season, and then Maier is likely to be crowned this year’s overall winner. A bash for 20,000 people is planned March 17 in Flachau, when Maier returns from his World Cup tour.

Already, homemade banners and signs dot the town, congratulating Maier on his wins.

``We’re very, very proud of him,″ said Flachau homemaker Susanne Bradtner.

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