Plenty of life after Maier for Austrians at Beaver Creek | AspenTimes.com

Plenty of life after Maier for Austrians at Beaver Creek

Edward Stoner
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyAustrian Mario Scheiber speeds to the finish line Wednesday during downhill training on the Birds of Prey World Cup course at Beaver Creek. Scheiber finished in fourth place.

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. – When Babe Ruth retired, the New York Yankees still had Lou Gehrig. And after Gehrig left, Joe DiMaggio still wore the pinstripes for years and years.

You might say there’s a similar succession with New York Yankees of skiing, also known as the Austrian Ski Team.

Legendary racer Hermann Maier is newly retired from racing, but there is no shortage of standouts on the Austrian squad.

In October, Maier retired after a career that saw 54 World Cup victories. He raced yearly at the Birds of Prey World Cup race in Beaver Creek since its inception in 1997, only missing 2001 and 2002, when he was recovering from a motorcycle accident that nearly forced the amputation of his leg. He won eight times at Beaver Creek, including a pair of golds at the 1999 World Championships.

“It’s a little bit strange for us,” said Austrian racer Christoph Gruber. “For so many years, [Maier] was one of the biggest men in Austria and on our team. And this year, he’s not here anymore. So something it missing.”

But veterans Benni Raich, who finished second in the overall World Cup point standings last year, and Michael Walchhofer, who finished eighth overall last year, help ensure that Maier’s retirement does not mean the Austrians cede their dominance.

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“I think Walchhofer, he’s the leader in downhill,” Gruber said. “Benni’s the leader in the technical disciplines. It hasn’t changed very much in this situation because Hermann was not that fast in the downhill the last few years. But his charisma is missing, his personality.”

Walchhofer said Maier might be missed more by journalists.

“He’s always good for a great story,” Walchhofer said. “Hermann was a special skier. He was one of the best, maybe the best, but not in the last years.”

Walchhofer, a speed-event specialist, had a great showing last weekend in Lake Louise, finishing third in the super G and fourth in the downhill. He said he has stepped up as a leader for the team, especially in the speed disciplines, winning a downhill globe last season.

“A lot of pressure last year, especially in the speed disciplines, was on my shoulders,” he said. “But normally I can give a little bit more when I’m under pressure.”

Raich said Maier’s retirement doesn’t affect him very much.

“He was a great guy, for sure, but, for me as a racer, it changes nothing,” Raich said. “But, sure, it’s clear that ski racing changes. And winning with Hermann is better than without.”

Austria has won the Nations Cup, whose standings are calculated by adding up all of the racers’ World Cup points, every year since 1987. Austrian racers have 408 World Cup wins from 1967 through last season. The next closest nation, Switzerland, had 210 during the same period.

Expectations remain sky high for the Austrian team. But, with other teams coming on strong, it’s going to be a battle to stay on top, the Austrians said.

“(Austria) was the best team last season and especially the end of the ’90s and beginning of 2000s, but now it’s maybe harder,” Walchhofer said. “The Swiss team is great. The Canadians really fast at the moment. I think it’s an interesting and great fight, an international fight now.”

estoner@vaildaily.com