Olympic gold medalist Maier retires

VIENNA -- This is usually Hermann Maier's time of year -- a ski season about to begin and an Olympics just months off.

The Austrian star fought back tears Tuesday in saying those plans have changed. He retired at age 36 and ended one of the mightiest careers in Alpine skiing.

"I gave it a lot of thought but decided spontaneously that now is the best time for retirement," Maier said at a news conference.

His nearly 14-year career would have been remarkable enough with two Olympic gold medals, three world titles, four overall World Cup crowns and 54 World Cup victories. But Maier also nearly lost a leg -- and his life -- in a motorcycle accident in 2001 and returned to competition to cement his legacy.

This year, the "Herminator" had surgery on his right knee after the World Cup season in March and began training on skis only last week at the glacier in Soelden. He said the operation convinced him it was time to stop.

"I am healthy now and that's the way I want to live on," Maier said. "I wanted to become fit once more and I've accomplished that now. In this good condition, I could decide whether to go on with my career or not."

He's not sure what comes next.

"For now, I am just glad I took this decision," he said. "I am looking forward to the time coming up, which obviously will include some exciting things."

At the 1998 Nagano Olympics he was at his spectacular best. He went flying off the downhill course and over two safety fences -- then came back 72 hours later to win the super-G before winning a second gold in the giant slalom. His World Cup victory total trailed only that of Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, who won 86 races.

Eight years ago, he was riding his motorcycle in Radstadt when he was struck by a car and thrown into a ditch. He underwent seven hours of surgery on his right leg. Doctors said he was close to kidney failure and having the leg amputated. Surgeons inserted screws and a foot-long titanium rod into his right shin. Two blood clots led to paralysis in his legs.

He was sidelined for almost two years. He returned to win the overall and super-G World Cup titles in 2004.

The Austrian ski federation hopes Maier will stay involved in the sport.

"It would be great if Hermann could share his great experience with the younger guys on the team," said Hans Pum, the federation's Alpine director.

Maier had little success as a junior and didn't make the Austrian World Cup team until 1996, when he was 23. He won his first race a year later in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. His last victory was a super-G last November in Lake Louise, Alberta.