We are three events into the 2010 men's World Cup season and something seems wrong. The snow is still white, the courses still challenging, the races as exciting as ever, yet, something, someone is missing.
For the first time since 1996 the world's highest level of skiing is without Austrian racing legend and perennial threat Hermann Maier. Throughout the course of his iconic career "The Herminator" started in 268 World Cup races, winning 54 of them. He is the owner of four Olympic medals and six World Championship medals. But his most impressive accomplishment isn't found in databases or on stat sheets, but rather in the hearts and minds of his fellow competitors and ski racing fans everywhere.
There is no way to measure just how many fans Maier drew to the sport of ski racing, how many kids he inspired to go fast or how many injured athletes he showed how to bounce back and return to the top of their game. These numbers cannot be measured, but by listening you can hear just how much he is missed in every corner of the ski racing world from junior clubs worldwide to the courses and press rooms of the World Cup. Nowhere is the talk more prevalent than at this season's World Cup speed opener in Lake Louise, Canada, the site of Maier's final World Cup victory only a year ago.
"It's funny because he was always the last guy on the course during inspection. He'd wait up there forever," said U.S. racer Steven Nyman, who remembers being knocked off what would have been his first Word Cup podium by Maier in Garmisch, Germany in 2006.
"Bode's [Miller] the first guy," Nyman continued. "He's [Maier] the last guy, and I always enjoyed hanging back there and waiting with him. This time he wasn't there, and I thought 'He won here last year.' The guy was incredible, he kept coming back."
The Oct. 13 announcement of Maier's retirement shocked many ski racing fans, coming only a week before the beginning of the 2010 World Cup season, and in an Olympic year no less. At 36 he walked away from a sport whose present status he helped mold.
Familiar rival and legend in his own right, Swiss skier Didier Cuche was quick to give Maier credit for raising the level of the sport. "It was nice having him on the World Cup circuit because he was a really famous guy, and he did so well that it was good for the sport," said Cuche. "He brought a lot of intensity to the world Cup, the way he skied, the way he was and he was really a guy who was always pushing hard to reach the gold."
In the summer leading up to his unexpected decision Maier underwent minor arthroscopic surgery on his knee, then injured his leg while cycling. A week before the announcement he was back on snow and told reporters he was planning to get back on his racing skis here at Lake Louise. Just a week later the news of his retirement broke, along with the hearts of his legions of fans.
"I suddenly decided to quit as I wanted to retire in good shape and relax a little. A week ago, I was not aware that this could happen so quickly, but the fact that I feel physically so great certainly pushed me towards that decision," said Maier the day he retired.
"I just felt that it was time to retire as I felt fully healthy again. I'm closing an important chapter in my life but I'm sure that there will be many more exciting moments to face from now on."
Maier earned his nickname "The Herminator" at the 1998 Winter Olympics where he clinching two gold medals only a few days after a terrible crash in the downhill. He bounced back yet again in 2001 after a serious motorbike accident nearly cost him his life, returning in 2003 to win the Kitzbühel super G and a silver medal at the World Championships at St Moritz.
"He was just so resilient how he came back from injuries, he not only was just a great ski racer, the guy was just determined. It was his life and it really took me by surprise he retired," said Nyman. "To win that many races in how little time he actually raced is pretty incredible. To compete against him and to beat him every once in a while was a pretty cool thing, even though I missed his prime."
Nyman, who has battled to come back from injuries over the last two seasons, looked to Maier as a solid example of how to take the rough with the smooth. "He was just a madman, so strong, so talented, and it was just that sheer dominance that made it attractive," said Nyman. "There is this story behind him of extreme success then almost shattered when his life was almost taken away, to back on the top again. When he came back and raced Kitzbuehel and won, it was just like 'Whoa this is insane'."
"It's unfortunate not to have him around anymore, obviously he was a force and a lot of fun to race against but at the same time I think it's kind of cool I can say I was the last guy to stand on a podium with Hermann Maier when he won," said world champion downhiller, Canadian John Kucera of his shared podium with Maier at last season's opening super G in Lake Louise, which Maier won and Kucera landed second. "He brought a new dimension to it, he was a real power skier and when he was in his prime he was unstoppable and he was fun to watch ski and there is definitely lots to learn from his intensity and his focus and determination."
Basketball super star LeBron James recently made headlines for suggesting that legendary player Michael Jordan's iconic number 23 jersey be retired across the NBA. Recognition Air Jordan himself has rejected. Now Maier's World Cup comrades are calling for a way to honor Maier's renowned career.
"For sure he is one of the biggest champions of all-time in the sport," said last season's World Cup overall champion Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal. "That's the way sports are, people come and go. But I hope there will be some big celebration of his career at Kitzbuehel. Because he is too big to just fade away."
Nyman also suggested honoring Maier at his beloved Kitzbuehel, where he won six World Cup races. "We ought to get him in a suit and let him run the course as fast as he wants while everybody chants his name," he joked.
A celebration to honor Maier in his hometown of Flachau on Dec. 7 is currently in the works.
-Eric Williams/Ski Racing Magazine