He went home to Flachau and at 16 became a bricklayer's apprentice, beginning work in a trade that he would practice for the next seven years. (He's now a journeyman.) His classmates at Schladming continued training and competing. In the voracious Austrian system, Maier was dead and forgotten. Yet his ambition thrived. "I trained every day for my comeback," he says. In the spring, summer and fall of each year he worked as a bricklayer and stonemason, hauling 110-pound bags of cement and pushing wheelbarrows full of brick and stone. His body quickly grew tall and wide: at 17 he was 5'11" and nearly 200 solid pounds. In the winter he taught at his family's school, Schischule Maier, one of five—no lie—ski schools in the hamlet of Flachau (pop. 2,500). "He was giving lessons five hours a day and skiing on his own the rest of the time," says the older Hermann. "I think all that practice is why he's such a good, instinctive skier."
In the spring of 1995, at the advanced age of 22 and after kicking tails in regional races for four years, Maier was given an opportunity. Alex Reiner, president of the regional Salzburg Ski Federation, who had been watching Maier's race results, helped him get a spot in the Austrian championships. "I was of the opinion that he was a Jahrhunderttalent [talent of the century]," says Reiner. "I gave him a chance." Because he had no international points, Maier started from the graveyard of last place in the giant slalom, 141st position, and finished a stunning 18th over a course rutted and made icy by the skiers who had gone before him. This wasn't enough to get him admitted to the national training program, but it gave him precious exposure.
On Jan. 6, 1996, Reiner arranged for Maier to ski as a forerunner for a World Cup giant slalom in Flachau. (Forerunners are noncompetitors who ski a course before the racers, ostensibly setting a line but in fact simply priming the crowd.) "I told the national coaches to watch this forerunner, Hermann Maier," recalls Reiner. Forerunners are not usually timed, but Reiner clocked Maier and says he would have finished seventh on the first run, 11th on the second. The national coaches immediately installed Maier, who had quit his bricklaying job two months earlier to train for one last attempt at racing, on the Europa Cup, the Triple A circuit that grooms racers for the World Cup. All thanks to two trips as a forerunner. Or maybe not.
In the case of a Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.-type phenomenon, like Maier, parties are quick to take credit—and duck blame—for his late arrival. Reiner is happy to describe himself as the man who discovered the most revolutionary talent in skiing since Alberto Tomba first powered through slalom gates, and he surely did help Maier. But Margreiter, backpedaling from the reality that Maier nearly slipped through the cracks of the Austrian system (nobody wants to be the jayvee coach who cut Michael Jordan), says, "We had seen him before he became a forerunner in Flachau and already decided to put him in Europa Cup races."
Skiing every week in what Moe calls "some old beat-up Spyder downhill suit," Maier scorched the Europa Cup circuit, and late in the 1995-96 season, Margreiter began putting him in World Cup races; in one, a giant slalom in Kvitfjell, Norway, he finished 11th. Last season, despite his injury, he had four top five finishes. This season he has been transcendent—with the credit largely his. "The truth is that he didn't get much help at all," says Margreiter. "He's one racer who really, really did a lot on his own."
Cotton-ball snowflakes fall in the Austrian Alps as Maier sits and listens to his ascent recounted by others. It's simpler for him. Ski the hill, race the race. Barely two years ago he was slopping mortar and setting stones. "To be a bricklayer is a fine life," he says. "To be a ski racer is a dream."