Maier still thinking Olympics

Posted: Sunday, December 02, 2001

GENEVA -- When Hermann Maier was pulled from the wreckage of a motorcycle crash three months ago, doctors feared he wouldn't survive.

When he came through, they feared he'd never walk again. When he walked, they feared he'd never ski again.

The Herminator is again defying the odds.

As the Austrian ski star makes his dramatic recovery from a shattered right leg and other serious injuries, he is determined to get back on skis and refuses to rule out racing at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Competing at the games in February might be a long shot, but who can count out Maier? This is a skier renowned for his resilience, one who crashed spectacularly in the downhill at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, only to get back up and win two gold medals in the next few days.

Despite reports last week that he had given up the idea of competing in Salt Lake City, he and his doctor told The Associated Press that Maier still hopes he can do it.

''Doctors say I might be able to ski at the end of December,'' the 28-year-old Maier said. ''This is my target now. Ask me then for competition targets.''

Pressed on his chances of being ready in time for the Olympics, he said, ''Ask me again in four to six weeks.''

Maier's doctor, Johannes Zeibig, said he should know in mid-January whether the two-time Olympic and world champion can compete at the games.

''That's the earliest, but the Olympics are not impossible,'' Zeibig said. ''We're working on getting a superstar and very good athlete back to where he was. We're far in front of the timetable.

''But our first step is to get him back on skis and then back to the ski racer he was before. He doesn't want to be 15th at the Olympics. As a human being, Hermann is back to 60-70 percent. But as a ski racer he's still less than 50 percent.''

Maier underwent seven hours of surgery to repair his leg after a car hit his motorcycle in Radstadt, Austria, on Aug. 24, throwing him into a ditch. Doctors said he was close to kidney failure and having the leg amputated.

''I remember lying there, having my right leg in my arm, blood coming out of my pants, and my first thought was, 'This looks really bad! I hope they'll be able to save my leg,''' Maier said.

Surgeons inserted screws and a titanium rod to repair his tibia and grafted skin from his left upper arm on his right shin.

''After almost three weeks lying in bed it was unbelievably hard for me to start walking again,'' Maier said. ''I'll never forget those first steps when I had to learn to walk again.''

Maier also was badly bruised around his pelvis, and for several days after the crash doctors believed two tennis ball-sized blood clots were leading to paralysis in his legs. The bruises caused nerve damage that is actually worse in Maier's left leg than his broken one, Zeibig said.

Before he gets back on the slopes, Maier has another problem to overcome: getting his ski boots on. He's been unable to wear them even though they were altered to accommodate his injury.

''My leg is just broken where the ski boot begins,'' he said.

''It'll take some weeks before I'll be able to really put on a ski boot. It's fine that they're working on a special boot, but it will just be a temporary solution. If I really want to ski as I used to, I need the same old aggressive material that I used to ski with before.''

And then there's the pain.

''Even now, almost three months after the accident, it's still hurting,'' he said. ''I'm fine most of the day, but in the evening the pain comes back. Sometimes it's so bad that I can't fall asleep.''

Maier said he stopped taking painkillers a few days ago because he didn't want to become dependent on them.

In the meantime, the former bricklayer from Flachau is trying to lose his limp, regaining lost weight and rebuilding the power that made him the biggest name in ski racing.

Maier, who has flown to Dubai to continue his recuperation, described the grueling rehab program he had been undergoing in Austria.

He would arrive at the Olympic training center in Obertauern between 9 and 10 o'clock in the morning, and rarely leave before 8 in the evening. His workouts include the stationary bike, weight training and rehab therapy.

''Training these days is even more time intensive than it was before the accident,'' said Maier, who lost 22 pounds after the crash. ''At this stage I'm lucky I can walk almost 100 percent normal. The next step is starting to run.''

For a man driven by success, the remarkable recovery is not going fast enough.

''Even when doctors try to cheer me up by telling me I'm running ahead of schedule, I'm impatient,'' Maier said. ''I think everything should go much faster.''

Yet Maier also realizes how fortunate he is to have come this far after an accident that could have cost him his life.

''I think the accident was fate,'' he said, ''but I don't know yet what fate wanted to tell me.''

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