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Long climb back to summit

Two interviews with Austrian superskier Hermann Maier stand out in stark contrast. They were six years apart, the first coming only a few hours after Maier had one of the most spectacular downhill crashes ever recorded in the Olympics.

Maier came into a jump on the Shiga Kogen course at the Nagano Games in 1998 going about 70 miles per hour and lined it up so badly that when he hit the jump, it hit him. He was launched about 50 yards, banging along the snow like a rag doll and blowing through the double layers of snow fencing bordering the course. He was taken off and the stunned crowd presumed he must be near death.

But a couple of hours later, down at the Austria House, Maier was hoisting a lager and making Maier kinds of jokes. "Not Lufthansa, but not bad," he roared in reference to his picturesque flight. And the next day, feeling as if he had survived a plane crash the day before, all the former bricklayer managed to do was go out and win one of his two gold medals of the Games.

Fast-forward to last December when, at Beaver Creek, Colo., Maier was returning to his winning ways after recovering from a motorcycle crash that nearly severed his leg below the knee. Talking about his skiing before training, all the swagger seemed to have gone out of the once-jovial "Herminator." He talked in quiet, serious tones, and his story was like that of a man returned from a near-death experience.

"Last year, I watched the races from Beaver Creek on TV, and I was very sad thinking that I would never be able to race again."

That year, of learning to walk and use his leg again, transformed Maier from an emerging ski-racer-playboy -- almost Tomba-esque in some of his antics -- into a serious, thoughtful, and thankful man.

"I cannot feel my leg like I used to," Maier said after a downhill run on the Birds of Prey course in December. "I have no feeling of where it is and I have to learn how to make turns again."

So imagine this: you are skiing fast, very fast -- speeds upward of 80 m.p.h. You are trying to muscle your way through forces unimaginable to most skiers, forces that are trying to throw you off the course. You are competing against the best racers in the world. And despite the pressure of enduring this with the nerve endings dead in one of your legs, you win it all.

Well, it's hard to find a measure.

Last week, Maier won his fourth overall World Cup title, after an anticlimactic race in Sestriere, Italy, in which the giant slalom race was abandoned because of heavy fog. The jury decision that gave Maier the overall also gave Bode Miller the giant slalom title. And no one is more amazed by how this season turned out than Maier himself.

"Yes, it is amazing," he said after being declared the winner. "At the start of this season my goal was to finish the season and win as many races as possible."

From Beaver Creek throughout the season, Maier may not have been the dominant force he once was, but he was still winning, finishing high in most races, and racking up the FIS points. And while his World Cup wins (47) probably will never mount up to make him a threat to Ingemar Stenmark's leading 86 wins, or Jean-Claude Killy's amazing feats in the pre-World Cup era, Maier must at least rate an asterisk as one of the greatest ski racers ever.

And his story has an intriguing personal twist. Growing up in a country where ski racing -- especially the speed events -- is king of sports, most racers come out of the powerful academy system that grooms skiers to be part of the nation's elite corps. Skiing there is like our NFL, and the skiers receive the money and adulation to prove it.

But Maier grew up a working-class kid who loved to ski. Whenever he could take a break from his construction work, he would be on skis, preferring the rough, ungroomed surfaces. His working-class life had given him an incredibly strong body, and though many of the Austrian coaches at first dismissed his walk-on appearance on the racing scene, the racing establishment simply could not ignore his talent.

In a country where many skiers cut from the national squad would be Olympians on other teams, Maier became such a dominant force it seemed he had made the World Cup a race for second place for many years. And if he has indeed lost something of his feel on the snow it may only have reduced Maier to just one among the best of mortals.

"I am not 100 percent the Hermann Maier of the past," said Maier. "I am no longer winning with 1.5-second [margin]. But I can tell you 100 percent of what I am now was used to win this overall title."

As for Miller, who began the season on a strong note with two World Cup wins and an avowed goal to win the overall title, the early target seemed to be another Austrian, defending overall winner Stephan Eberharter. But down the stretch the battle included two more Austrians, Benjamin Raich and a most unexpected Maier.

Both Maier and Miller won their titles by the math rather than on skis. When last weekend's GS was canceled by the judges for safety reasons, both were assured wide enough margins to give them locks. Finland's Kalle Palander had a shot at beating Miller -- who crashed in the first run -- if he had finished either first or second in the second run.

But as with all sports, luck plays a part, and usually for those who work hard enough to create their luck. Miller, the Franconia, N.H., native who skied at Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine, became the first American male to win the GS title since Phil Mahre's back-to-back titles in 1982 and '83.

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