Hermann Maier, the Austrian skier, is a hot favourite for gold medals at the Nagano Olympics in 1998. He started off the Downhill race with measured aggression. He did all the right things and on track to ace the race…until the 8th bend. He lost his balance, lost control of his path, went over a mound that catapulted him dangerously 30 feet overground. He went flying over 100 meters treacherously and awkwardly crashed on the ground, narrowly missing injuring his neck. He crashed through two safety nets, the soft thick snow cushioning his fall, and came to a stop. He lay there motionless. After an agonizing minute, he slowly picked himself, much to the relief of those watching in horror. Miraculously, he came out with minor injuries.
Doubts loomed large over his continuation in the Games. Yet, three days later, he participated in the Super-G race, does a textbook perfect run and won the gold medal. Three days later, he claimed another gold medal in the Grand Slalom.
To make such a comeback from a confidence-draining and ego-deflating crash that was watched by millions of people live on TV, is a hallmark of a champion. The media gave him a moniker: ‘The Herminator’, a play on a fellow Austrian, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie, The Terminator.
Hermann is no stranger to such challenges since an early age. He started skiing as early as 5 years. It helps that his Dad ran a skiing school in Flachau, Austria. He showed early promise and he joined the Austrian National Ski Academy. However, he was sent home a year later as the Academy felt he was too short to make for a professional athlete. He continued to learn and train in his father’s academy. However, a growth disorder hampered his practice. After he graduated from college, he became a bricklayer. He continued teaching in his father’s skiing school.
He participated in small local tournaments and slowly but surely started to show his mettle. He started to win many races and eventually made it to the Austrian national team. Over the next few years, he began to dominate the sport with vengeful aggression as if to prove a point. Maier won his second and third overall World Cup titles in 2000 and 2001.
In August 2001, tragedy struck. Maier had a horrible, near-fatal, motorcycle accident. His leg was badly injured. The doctors considered amputating his leg. Instead, they undertook a complicated reconstructive surgery to save his leg. After the surgery, it took him over two years to recuperate and come back to normalcy. He felt really bad missing the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Being an Olympian had always been his dream.
In 2003, he made a spectacular comeback to the sport. Even after meeting multiple accidents both in skiing as well on the road, his love for the sport and his competitive spirit made him practice hard. He went on to win his fourth overall World Cup championship which many considered a phoenix-like miracle. He took his form into the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy and won two Olympic medals, a silver medal in the super-G and bronze in the giant slalom. He had avenged his demons.
Maier story has a strong lesson for corporate professionals. We are bound to have major setbacks in our lives. But if our love for the work is strong enough and his will to succeed is powerful enough, we will prevail and prosper. Maier’s story is such an inspirational one for all of us to learn from.