As a sports commentator, Gerd Rubenbauer has followed skiing ace Hermann Maier from the beginning on. In an interview, Rubenbauer talks about shared memories, the unique character of Hermann Maier, and Olympic gold after a notable fall.
ISPO.com: Mr. Rubenbauer, as a TV reporter, you’ve followed Hermann Maier for several years. How would you describe your reporting relationship with him?
Gerd Rubenbauer: It was always outstanding. I like those kinds of guys, such tough people, so crazy and wild – that’s my world. I’m similarly structured that way, and that’s why I always got along well with Hermann.
How long have you known him, exactly?
Since the beginning of his career on, so 1996. I can still remember it now: Slalom in Flachau, Alberto Tomba was starting number one, Hermann was forerunner. I look and think, “Wow, he skis like a skiing instructor, but he’s great standing on the skis!” After the fact it was said that he had come in twelfth. Afterwards, I never lost touch with him.
All the way up to the end of his career, I experienced everything with him. I was there in the Hofburg when he tearfully said his farewells. So I can permit myself a judgement of his career.
What makes this Hermann Maier so special?
A couple of criteria: First, there’s a basic perfectionism. He often stood in his own way, but that runs like a golden thread through his career. Point two: He always had to work hard for everything in his athletic life. Nothing’s been given to him. He wasn’t an 18- or 19-year-old like a Henrik Kristoffersen today, who runs down everything right in his first World Cup race, and then has everything fall into his lap.
That wasn’t the case with Maier at all. He learned a hard trade as a bricklayer – that’s where his down-to-earth attitude comes from. Because he knows what it means to place stone upon stone, to get money for it and know how you need to work around that – that’s Hermann Maier.
But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t also like celebrating and running riot. That just has to get out when you’re as inclined as he is. But everything he’s done to come back after all of the setbacks! Nobody today would do that anymore.
What did he do?
I’ll never forget how it was with his room bicycle. He always dragged that thing around everywhere he went. He still wasn’t really down from the ledge yet, so he sat back on it and started pedaling. Later his roommates saw to it that he pedaled in the hall – because he still kept biking at night.
Do you remember Maier’s first World Cup win?
Of course, with us in Garmisch, 1997! Two days before he’d been in second – in his second Super-G race ever! Then in the third, he won.
Is there something like a secret recipe for his success?
He always trained on shaded courses where there was guaranteed to be no light except for rips and holes. The Kandahar in Garmisch is always shaded, and he loved it. It was the same way today, too: Everyone was complaining about the poor visibility and the blows.
There was never anything like that with Maier. He always said, “I was a skiing instructor, and I’ve ridden around the dinky slopes in the Europa Cup. No visibility? That’s my kind of weather.” The shadow man. He doesn’t have eyes, just radar guns in his face.
What does such a positive madman do when he can’t race anymore?
I don’t think he’s fallen into a hole. He has the God-given trait of being able to disconnect really well and build a completely new life: his private life. The single handicap: He can’t move as freely as he’d like. He’s already a little bit afraid of everything that’s happening today. He doesn’t say a word to his family either, he totally compartmentalizes it. That’s the price that he has to pay, and it’s pretty huge.
Are there still athletic challenges for him?
When, like just a short while ago, he goes hiking to the South Pole with Markus Lanz, he does it with enthusiasm. That challenged him. But there aren’t many of those kinds of athletic challenges that he would take on anymore. In other respects, that chapter is over. But if you ask him why he got this or that trophy, he can tell you about that race from the first second to the last.
You’ll also have to tell us about the fall of the century in Nagano. How did you experience this major crash in the descent at the 1998 Olympics?
That was a ZDF channel race, we at ARD had the women’s races. Those of us not on assignment had a so-called observer’s booth next to those commentating. I was sitting in there. I would have bet everything on Maier. But when I saw the line that he was attempting...that was absolutely crazy. The crash was already looming.
First you were incredibly horrified and held your breath. I genuinely almost prayed that he would come through – because I liked him so much! In the aftermath, it has to be said: That was almost a gymnastics exercise. The way he hits that cartwheel, tightens up his body, stretches and flies over the fencing: You have to have those kinds of nerves. I believe that he did it consciously.
The next day I happened to see him walking from 30 meters away in the hotel: I could never have imagined that he would race in Nagano again.
Why is that?
He only had a T-shirt on, and what you could see of his skin was all just blue and purple. He was lucky that the next race was postponed by two days due to strong wind. By then they had sorted him out to the point that he still won gold in Super-G and giant slalom – Hermann Maier and fate. He was like a legendary figure in alpine skiing.
You definitely would have liked to commentate this spectacular take-off, right?
I don’t know whether I would have liked to commentate on it. That kind of fall – that probably would have really, really hurt me.
Is a guy like Hermann Maier missing in the World Cup of today?
We won’t see such charismatic skiers like Maier, Stenmark, and Tomba again any time soon. Back then people watched the races who otherwise had nothing to do with alpine racing at all.
Once I was in a pub where there was lots of babbling and beer being drunk during the ski race – until suddenly someone said in a typically Bavarian accent, “Pipe down, here comes Maier!” In a split second the pub was completely quiet. That really says it all.