With the Winter Olympics well under way in south Korea, today we look back 20 years to one of the most heart-stopping moments in the history of the winter games.
Austrian alpine ski racer Hermann Maier was tipped as a medal hope in several events at the Nagano games in Japan, but his spectacular exit from the Men’s Downhill event on February 13th, 1998, had viewers’ hearts in their mouths.
The 25-year-old Austrian was just 17 seconds into his run and already travelling around 80mph when disaster struck. Attempting to negotiate the eighth turn, a left-hander, he seemed to lose control, his right ski lifting off the snow. Failing to make the turn, he instead launched 30 feet into the air, arms flailing to regain balance, but instead turning upside down.
When he landed, it was on his hands and helmet, the impact spinning him back onto his feet but with both skis immediately breaking free of their bindings. Still travelling at speed and now cartwheeling uncontrollably, he crashed backwards through two safety nets, designed to slow any fallers, before finally coming to rest in deeper snow.
For a few agonising seconds Maier lay face down and motionless in the snow, but then he started to move. Rising slowly to his knees, he lifted his goggles from his face before pushing himself upright using the single remaining ski pole still attached to his wrist.
As rescuers rushed to his aid, relieved TV viewers saw the Austrian begin to walk slowly back towards the slope. Incredibly he had suffered only minor cuts and bruises – but that was only half the story. Just a few days later he was fit to compete in both the Giant Slalom and Super Giant Slalom (Super-G) events (downhill racing while passing through a series of gates) and won the Olympic gold medal in both disciplines.
His apparent invincibility after such a spectacular fall earned him the nickname “The Herminator” – a play on the indestructible movie character “The Terminator” played by fellow Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger. Later that same year, Maier won the overall World Cup title, which he would win again in 2000 and 2001.
Now at the top of his chosen sport, Maier’s glittering career almost ended in disaster in August 2001 when he was involved in another terrible crash, but this time on his motorcycle. Heading home from a summer training session, he collided with a car and suffered several serious injuries. Doctors almost amputated his lower right leg, but instead he underwent massive reconstructive surgery, surgeons rebuilding the limb using metal plates and screws in a series of operations.
Even then, most people thought he would never ski competitively again, if at all. He sat out the entire 2002 season and missed that year’s Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, USA, but the following year “The Herminator” was back on the slopes and shocked the skiing world by winning a Super-G event in Kitzbuhel, Austria.
In 2004 – his first full season back in competition – he reclaimed both the Super-G and overall World Cup titles to complete one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. At the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin he wasn’t quite able to recapture the success of the 1998 games, but still claimed silver in the Super-G and bronze in the Giant Slalom. He finally retired from competition in 2009 at the age of 36, after a 13-year career which saw him collect an impressive tally of 54 wins in World Cup events and four Olympic medals.
• You can watch a video of Maier’s spectacular crash at the 1998 Nagano Olympics by clicking here.