ADELBODEN, Switzerland (AP) – A couple of years ago, only gold would do for Hermann Maier.
Now the mighty Herminator is like a fresh-faced rookie, simply trying to qualify for the second run of a World Cup giant slalom.
Making his long-awaited comeback after an 18-month absence, Maier doesn’t know what to expect as he returns to the World Cup slopes Tuesday.
A two-time Olympic gold medallist and three-time overall World Cup champion, Maier once reigned supreme over the ski scene. But a motorcycle accident in August 2001 nearly cost him a leg and his career.
“It’s a victory for me just to be here, to be back racing,” said Maier, following his course inspection run Monday. “I’m just aiming to qualify for the second leg. Tomorrow is the test. It’s an attempt to see where I stand and how far I can go.
“I’m surprised. I never thought I could be coming back so soon.”
Maier’s coaches, though impressed by his sudden progress at a recent training session, are still unsure what to expect and are reluctant to put any kind of pressure on the 30-year-old.
“I was surprised by his achievements in training,” said Maier’s personal coach Andreas Evers, who suffered a motorcycle accident that ended his career. “He looked competitive with the others in training, posting about the same times.
“But we simply don’t know how it will turn out. I hope he’s ready.”
Evers has reason to be anxious.
Maier, the 1998 two-time Olympic champion, has not competed since his accident. He was expected to make a comeback in October but re-injured his leg last August in Chile while gate skiing for the first time since the crash. His last race was a giant slalom on March 10, 2001, in Are, Sweden, which he won.
Enjoying a two-month break in November and December to take helicopter flying lessons, Maier has spent little time on his skis. The powerful Austrian has only six days gate-training and four days free skiing under his belt this season and only about 15 days total since his accident.
Maier only joined the Austrian ski team’s giant slalom training last Wednesday, skiing with teammates Christian Mayer, Christoph Gruber and Hans Knauss. On Friday he trained for the super-G.
“I didn’t even think about skiing for two months,” Maier said. “But after the (Christmas) holidays I tried free skiing and it went really well so I decided to try. You can’t just train all the time. You need to race.”
Michael von Gruenigen, a three-time World Cup giant slalom champion long engaged in a tough duel with Maier in the discipline, said the number of days his rival had trained was probably irrelevant.
“He’s got the routine from before so he doesn’t need 100 days,” von Gruenigen said. “But it’s hard to say what to expect.”
If Maier is downplaying his hopes for Tuesday’s race, others are convinced he’ll shine. Teammates Knauss and Gruber said they expected a top-10 result from Maier.
Even Hans Pum, alpine director of the Austrian Ski Federation, is confident.
“I can see the fire in his eyes,” Pum said.
While most skiers were happy to see Maier back, one seemed a little cool.
Teammate Stephan Eberharter, who took over from Maier as reigning World Cup overall, downhill and super-G champion in his absence, was noticeably ignored on the slopes as journalists and television crews clustered around Maier.
“Of course it’s good that he is back,” Eberharter shrugged. “But this is not my preoccupation right now.
“He has his goals and I have mine. They are quite different.”
Maier, who has an injury-protected ranking, will receive a starting bib between Nos. 8-15. He will not be automatically qualified for the Feb. 2 to 16 world championships, however, and will need to earn one of the four spots reserved for the Austrian team in the giant slalom.
“I’m not thinking about the worlds right now,” he said. “We’ll see tomorrow where I am.”