The Boys who lived in the Austrian village of Flachau would ski nearly every winter afternoon. After school they would rush to the base of a small hill in the long shadow of the Dachstein, and because the hill had no chair lift or rope tow they would step sideways to the top before careening fearlessly down. Then they would do it again and again, until darkness consumed them. They would imagine that they were World Cup racers and that the small bumps on their tiny slope were the treacherous Kamelsprung on the famous downhill at Val Gardena in Italy's south Tyrol. On weekends they would watch their older countrymen—most of all the great Franz Klammer—compete on television and then try to imitate them.
Fifteen years have passed. The boys are grown. In the dim light of a midwinter evening, 23-year-old Alex Maier sits at a smooth, wooden table in the kitchen of his family's two-story stone house and recalls that his older brother, Hermann, was always the best of them, the fastest and smoothest skier. "His position was always small, efficient, his hands were always just right, in front of him," says Alex. The boys would bring liters of cola and pieces of chocolate as prizes for the winner of their after-school races, and usually Hermann ingested the spoils. He was a restless kid with a single mind who would suffer through the school day while tapping his foot in anticipation of the skiing that was to follow. "Always he talked about being in the World Cup and the Olympic Games," says Alex.
Soft music drifts from the small radio behind him. Alex pauses when the song stops and a voice begins speaking urgently in Austrian-accented German. "Listen," says Alex. "He's talking about Hermann."
The announcer is part of a chorus, singing the story of 25-year-old Hermann Maier, whose late-blooming talent was almost lost in the prodigious depth of Austrian Alpine skiing (see: Kenyan distance runners, American point guards, Dominican shortstops) and who was nearly left to a long career as a bricklayer. Instead Maier has not only reached the World Cup circuit—and, soon, the Nagano Olympics—but also overwhelmed it with a style and a drive that have left his opponents dumbstruck. "The way he's skiing, he's pretty much taken the sport to a whole new level," says Tommy Moe, an American who won the Olympic downhill in 1994. "I mean, it's like it's a new era, and he's the beginning." Says Moe's U.S. teammate and two-time Olympian Kyle Rasmussen, "Everybody is just a little bit in awe of the guy. His own teammates are in awe of him, believe me." The panting European media have taken to calling him, alternately, Monster Maier and, in homage to another Austrian hero, the Hermann-ator.
In what amounts to his first full season on the World Cup circuit (he skied three World Cup races at the end of the 1995-96 season and missed several weeks of the 1996-97 season with a broken wrist), Maier has been among the top three finishers in 13 of 17 races and has won eight, including five in a row in mid-January, one short of the record of six set by Jean-Claude Killy in '67. Despite missing three races in Kitzb�hel, Austria, last weekend while recuperating from boot bruises on both shins, he's almost certain to become the first Austrian to win the overall World Cup points title since Karl Schranz in '70. In Nagano, he will be among the favorites in four disciplines—downhill, Super G, giant slalom and the combined—and could become the first Alpine skier since Killy in '68 to win three golds in a single Games.
All this success has left him more than a little amazed. Last week Maier sat in the lobby of a plush resort hotel in Kitzb�hel, his long, thin hair falling across his forehead, a scraggly beard sprouting along his jaw and a bemused grin fixed to his face. When introduced to a stranger, he eschewed formalities, stuck out a gnarled right hand and responded with a chummy, "Hermann." It is all so new and fresh. "I am really surprised," he said in earnest, serviceable English. "Also, I am enjoying it."
In only two years he has revolutionized the speed disciplines of downhill and Super G with a daring style in which he runs a straighter line down the mountain than any other skier has consistently taken. In the speed events the traditional thinking is that to glide effectively a skier must take a wide line through turns and around gates, because a tight line entails carving the snow and ice, which costs a skier speed. "What Hermann has is the ability to glide while maintaining a tight line, which was always assumed to be impossible," says Austrian men's Alpine coach Werner Margreiter. "It's a very exciting thing to see."
Intimidating, as well. "He's blowing everybody away on the most difficult sections," says Rasmussen. "The steeper it gets, the icier it gets; where everybody else holds back, he just charges right through. You watch him diving into some turns and you say, Wow, I'm not sure I could do that."
There's something more at work here than pure technique. Maier is old for a virtual rookie (teammate Christian Mayer, for instance, is less than a year older than Maier but has spent seven years on the World Cup circuit), and he's stoked from years of waiting for his chance. He's hungry, and hunger in skiing leads to bravery. "You watch him race, watch his eyes," says Rasmussen. "The guy just can't get enough of it."
This is because he nearly got none of it. Maier's father, also named Hermann, is the owner of a ski school who put the older of his two children on skis at age three. "Two days later he was off riding the lift by himself," says the father. From the beginning young Hermann was possessed of a brilliant touch on the snow and perfect posture on his skis. But he was also tiny, with skinny, perpetually sore knees. In the fall of 1988, when he was 15, he was accepted into the national ski academy at Schladming, but he weighed just 110 pounds. After one year he was gone. "They said I wasn't fit to ski in their school," says Maier.