VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian Alpine skiing champion and Olympic gold medallist Hermann Maier ended his 13-year career Tuesday, saying he wanted to retire while still in good health.
Maier, 36, was known for spectacular crashes and staged an unlikely comeback after almost losing his lower leg in a motorcycle accident in 2001.
“I have decided that I will draw a line and end my career as a ski racer as of today,” Maier told a news conference in which he frequently paused to fight back tears before breaking down after finishing his statement.
“My big goal was to get back in shape physically and I have achieved exactly that,” he said. “With regard to my future life, my health was paramount for me and that’s why I’m calling it quits now.”
Maier took on the nickname “The Herminator” for a style that relied more on physical strength than technical brilliance, in an allusion to the character played by compatriot Arnold Schwarzenegger in the “Terminator” science fiction movie.
He won his first Olympic gold medal at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan just three days after a dramatic crash during the downhill race from which he emerged only slightly bruised.
Asked what he was thinking while hurtling 40 metres into a deep off-piste snowbank, he said: “I thought, ‘If I now win gold, I’ll be immortal’.”
Maier chalked up a succession of victories over the next few years but his luck ran out in 2001 when he crashed into a car as he rode his motorcycle home from a training session.
The surgery took seven hours during which doctors considered amputating his lower leg.
Maier was out of action for more than a year but staged a spectacular comeback in his favourite race, the Kitzbuehl Streif, where he won the World Cup Super-G in January 2003.
Maier, whose talent was discovered relatively late when he was 23 years old, won 54 World Cup races, making him the second most successful male skier ever after Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark.
He won four overall World Cup titles and several more in his favourite downhill, Super G and giant slalom disciplines, collected two gold medals at the 1998 Winter Olympics and claimed three world championship titles.
Editing by Ed Osmond