The car slowed, negotiating traffic in a private parking lot at the base of the Olympic Alpine hill, 30 miles west of Nagano, and Picabo Street shouted at the man in the passenger seat. "Hermann!" she screamed, with proper Teutonic inflection. "Hey, Hermann!" Unheard, Street clomped toward the car in the blue plastic ski boots she had worn racing in Monday morning's women's downhill an hour earlier, stiffly gaining on the vehicle until at last she was seen by its occupants. The window was rolled down. "Congratulations," Street said. Inside the dirty gray car, Hermann Maier waved, shrugged and smiled crookedly, words being unnecessary among such kindred spirits.
These were, after all, the poster children for week 1 of Alpine skiing at the accursed Games of '98, the central characters in a story that was snowbound, rain-swept, iced over, fogged in and windblown; one that was, by turns, harrowing and tiresome and in which the gold medals that Maier and Street won should be decorated with isobars and Purple Hearts instead of Olympic rings and laurels.
Maier, the Austrian World Cup sensation, won the super-giant slalom on Monday morning, three days (and two weather-related postponements) after miraculously walking away from a frightful downhill crash (cover photo). Following his Super G victory, he laughingly described himself as unsterblich, the German word for "immortal." Five days earlier, on Feb. 11, Street had brought the U.S. its first Alpine gold of the Games by winning the Super G, just 14 months after the reconstruction of the ACL in her left knee and 12 days after suffering a concussion. However, her chances in the downhill, in which she finished sixth, disintegrated in part because of a series of distractions that festered over the course of the same weather delays that gave Maier needed rest from his crash-related bruises. Think of it this way: Without the horrible weather, Maier might have won no gold medals and Street might have won two.
At 9:31 on Monday morning, Maier prepared for the start of the Super G, willing himself to be the same, hyperaggressive racer who has won 10 World Cup races this season, but his mind wandered. In the downhill, he had dived too fast into the steep, perilous Alpen Turn near the top of the course and had gone airborne at roughly 65 mph, crashing through two snow fences before coming to rest in soft powder far off the run. At the base of the mountain, near the finish, Maier's brother, Alex, and girlfriend, Petra Wechselberger, watched the spectacular wipeout with three friends on a giant TV screen. "Very bad," said Alex. Only after Maier rose to his feet and waved his index finger at a nearby television camera did they know he was not seriously hurt.
Given the speed and impact of the fall, his injuries were minor: a bruised left shoulder and a sprained right knee. The Super G, however, was scheduled for the next morning. As Maier sat in the restaurant at the Austrian team hotel that night after what he called his "first big crash in downhill," he seemed humbled. "Not so good," he said. "I'm skiing, I catch big wind behind me, then I am looking at the sky."
Other racers regarded Maier's fall as comeuppance for a season in which his racing had redefined the limits of bravery. "It was a matter of time until this happened," said U.S. downhiller Kyle Rasmussen. Said downhill gold medalist Jean-Luc Cretier of France, "Today you had to ski with your head and not your legs."
Over the next three days the Super G was postponed twice, first by rain and then by fog. Maier was taken to a hospital for a reexamination of his knee, and then he rested. "I was always hopeful that the race would be later," he said. His body healed just enough; his mind would have to wait for the race.
The memory of his downhill crash dogged Maier as he poled away from the start of the Super G. "It was hard for me to concentrate," he said. "For the first gates, I was careful." As the race unfolded, Maier began attacking gates again, skiing his signature tight line and in the end beating Austrian teammate Hans Knauss and Switzerland's Didier Cuche by .61 of a second, a huge margin.
Austrian coach Werner Margreiter had been just below Maier on the mountain during his downhill fall. "It was the most incredible thing," Margreiter said that night. "I was watching, and then Hermann went sailing past, a couple stories above everything else." Margreiter said he shook his head, disbelieving his eyes. On Monday he greeted Maier at the finish, incredulous again. "You cannot really put this in perspective, to have such a great race after such a bad crash," Margreiter said. "I can't compare it to anything."
On an adjacent slope, barely an hour after Maier's victory, Street pushed free from the start house in the downhill. This was the race she had seemed, going into the Games, most likely to win as the crowning moment in her comeback from the knee injury she'd suffered in a training fall in Vail on Dec. 4, 1996. But everything had changed in just a few days. Defying logic, Street had finished first in the Super G, an event in which she had never won a World Cup race. She had skied to victory despite persistent headaches and a stiff neck, aftereffects of a headfirst downhill crash on Jan. 31 in Are, Sweden. The emotion of her Super G triumph crystallized when the gold medal was draped around her neck by 1968 triple gold medalist Jean-Claude Killy of France.