The life and tragic death of Ulli Maier: The grief-stricken world of skiing is united in mourning for the heroine it lost: Simon O'Hagan shares the sense of loss as a nation weeps for its idol of the slopes

AS THE sun went down behind the mountain, they gathered in little groups in the square. They might have been students on an excursion, deciding what to do next. Except that there were no looks of expectation on their faces, only of grief. And the big 'Austria' emblazoned in gothic script on the back of their ski jackets denoted membership of one of their country's most exclusive clubs. These weeping young men and women were Austria's finest skiers - the ones Ulli Maier left behind.

They had buried her that afternoon in a corner of the graveyard in Rauris, Maier's home village high in the Alps of central Austria. It had been one of those dazzling days skiers dream of. A cloudless sky, the air so clear you could almost pick out the needles on the pine trees stretching up the mountains, and so still that not one of them moved. The snow lay deep and inviting. But nobody skied in Rauris on Thursday afternoon.

They came instead - 5,000 of them in a village with a population of only 3,000 - to mourn their adored Ulli, killed last Saturday in a World Cup race at Garmisch- Partenkirchen in Germany. Ulli whose gift for skiing made her a world champion. Ulli the local girl who grew up to be a star but still stopped and chatted to you in the street and did so in the regional dialect. Good, kind Ulli. Ulli with the radiant smile. Ulli tragically young to die, but at 26 the 'lady' of the Austrian team and due to retire at the end of the season. But above all, Ulli the mother of four- year-old Melanie, who she had taught to ski this winter.

Ulli. We heard her name again and again through the long funeral service, the sound of longing there every time it was mentioned as friends and team-mates and members of her family took turns to remember her. 'Ulli, wir werden Dich niemals vergessen.'

They won't forget her, either. Not the veterans in their dark green hats adorned with pine sprigs, standing in the snowy graveyard listening to the service being relayed via loudspeaker. Nor the brass band in their brown breeches and blue socks, playing funeral airs as they led the cortege up Rauris's narrow main street towards the church of St Martin. Nor the young people: the Red Cross volunteers in their beautiful dove-grey uniforms, and the members of the village ski clubs, their modern gear in gaudy contrast to the traditional costume elsewhere. They will all remember where they were when they heard Ulli Maier had been killed.

And when it was all over, when the eight members of the Austrian men's skiing team had lowered her coffin into the ground, and Maier's mother, father and fiance had sprinkled holy water on to it, nobody wanted to go. Nobody wanted to walk the half-mile back to the edge of the village where we had all had to park our cars. So in falling darkness, with the cold beginning to bite, Maier's team- mates stood around and shared in each other's sadness, knowing that their sport is one of the most dangerous in the world, but still unable to come to terms with what had happened to Ulli.

TWO hours before she leapt down a mountain for the last time, Ulli Maier told the Garmisch organisers that she was worried about the condition of the course. It was too icy, she said. Ice is a skier's greatest fear, and in a downhill, the ultimate test of skiing speed, its dangers are all too obvious.

The organisers agreed with Maier, and had the icier stretches of the course broken up. According to Walter Hubmann, the Austrian team manager, Maier had no qualms about the course when she set off. 'She didn't really worry before the start,' he said in Rauris last week. 'She was in quite a good mood and ready to go. The racers who had gone ahead radioed up to her, so she knew it was OK.'

Maier was the 32nd skier down in a field of 67. She was not really a downhill specialist, and was unlikely to be among the leading finishers. Super-giant slalom, at which she had won the world championship in 1989 and 1991, and giant slalom were more her disciplines, and were what had helped her into fourth place in the overall World Cup standings going into the Garmisch race. In the overall downhill standings she was 41st out of 53.

Maier's progress down the Kandahar mountain began smoothly. She had no problems in the upper part, where the ice was at its worst, and looked comfortable through halfway by which point there was more snow on which to grip. When she lost control, on a seemingly straightforward gliding stretch some 200 yards from the finish, there seemed no reason for it.

'She caught an edge,' Hubmann said. 'It was just a real accident. You wouldn't think anybody could fall on this stretch.' But skiers often catch edges and fall without getting killed. What exactly happened to Maier when things started to go wrong is a matter of dispute, but it would appear that as her right ski slipped away from her she twisted on to her back, hitting a sack of straw, covered with hard-packed snow. This was protecting a timing device - built into a wooden stake about a foot high - on the side of the course. Maier was skiing very close to the right-hand side, in order to be well placed going into the final left-hand bend.

The collision occurred almost immediately. There was no time for her to slow down or break her fall, so that when the impact happened she was travelling at an estimated 105kph (about 60mph). Her helmet flew off and she was flung back across the piste.

At first it was not clear how seriously Maier had been hurt. Her team-mate Anita Wachter said: 'I saw the crash and thought, that's not good. But I never thought it was that bad either.' The organisers took the same view. The race was held up for 30 minutes while Maier was treated on the course by paramedics and then taken by helicopter to a hospital 25 miles away at Murau which specialises in skiing injuries. The race restarted. Two and a half hours later, the news came through. Maier was dead.

HUBERT SCHWEIGHOFER is a police officer from Salzburg. He is also a former member of Austria's reserve skiing team, and has coached skiing in the US. It was in his days as a professional skier in the late 1980s that he met Maier, by then well established in the Austrian team. 'He was always a very lively person, a great one for going out and enjoying himself,' a friend of the couple said last week. But not in a way that was especially liked by some members of the Austrian team. 'He wasn't very popular with them,' a race organiser said. But then he had won the heart of Ulli Maier.

She was born and brought up in Rauris, about 100 miles to the south of Salzburg. The history of the village dates back a thousand years, to when it was a gold-mining community. It still has a simple, unspoilt air, and although it attracts plenty of skiers in the season, it's not touristy. St Anton and Lech - Austrian resorts at the other end of the country and much better known to British skiers - were described by one Rauris local last week as 'high society', in a way that managed to be both pejorative and genuinely deferential.

Maier had no need to be either. 'She had a lot of talent and self-confidence,' Anita Wachter, a contemporary of Maier's, said. 'She wanted to be good.' It was clear by the time she was 12 that Maier had enough to take her to the top. She left school in Rauris and for three years was a pupil at the Schladming ski school which combined academic studies with skiing. At 15 she joined the Austrian World Cup squad and had been a member of it ever since, dropping out only when Melanie was born in August 1989.

She thought about giving up the sport then, but, Walter Hubmann said, 'soon realised that she could still be good again'. Some of her best skiing came after she had achieved the all-too rare status in women's sport nowadays of being both a mother and a top competitor. But Melanie was growing up, and doing so largely in the care of one or other set of grandparents while her mother was away skiing and her father doing his police work.

The plan was for Ulli to stop skiing competitively and set up the family's first permanent home in Rauris. Hubert had managed to get himself a posting from Salzburg to the much closer town of Lend, and between them they would take over the running of the ski school owned by Ulli's father, who was ready to retire.

Ulli had her own ski shop in Rauris, which on Thursday had a window display containing many treasures of a life in skiing - medals, trophies, photographs, and, most poignantly of all, her first pair of child's ski boots.

Ulli and Hubert were due to marry in September, having waited for two and a half years' refurbishment work on the 900-year-old Rauris church to be completed, during which it was closed. It only reopened a month ago.

Schweighofer reacted angrily to the death of his wife-to-be, blaming it on the organisers. 'For four years the experts have been working on safety, and this has shown that nothing has improved,' he said. Within 24 hours of the incident, he was threatening to sue, and on Monday his lawyer was talking in terms of damages worth DM15m (pounds 6m). Matters took on a more sinister edge when it was reported on Friday that Hubert Ostler, president of the Garmisch organising committee, had received death threats.

The organisers are disappointed, to say the least, at Schweighofer's attitude. 'We can understand how he feels,' said their spokesman, Rudi Markl. 'But it's a heat-of-the-moment reaction. We must think of the longer term. And as for the money, I cannot understand this.' Even within the Austrian camp there is a feeling that Schweighofer has been insensitive in talking about money so soon after Ulli's death.

Schweighofer's decision to sue or not may well hinge on the outcome of the German police inquiry into the accident - standard procedure in any case of unnatural death. But the organisers are confident their security measures will bear scrutiny. 'We did everything possible from that point of view,' said Ostler. 'In skiing, especially high-speed skiing, the risk is always there.'

None the less, the precedent has been set for taking race organisers to court in similar circumstances. In 1989 a Canadian skier, Brian Stemmle, suffered appalling injuries when he crashed into some fencing during the Hahnenkamm race at Kitzbuhel. He sued, and won. He is now waiting to hear how much money he will receive.

Stemmle, having made a remarkable recovery, was one of the members of the Canadian team in Garmisch last week for the men's downhill due to take place yesterday but which was cancelled in the wake of the Maier tragedy. After attending a memorial service for Maier in Garmisch on Wednesday Stemmle explained that he had taken his action, 'so it didn't happen to anyone else' - a line of argument that Schweighofer is also adopting.

'My situation was that they had talked about fixing that section of the course for three days leading up to the race, but they never did,' Stemmle said. 'That was what we based our case on.' Schweighofer may have a harder job proving negligence on Garmisch's part, but Stemmle defends his right to pursue the matter. 'He has a daughter to support for the rest of his life, and I'm sure he's thinking of her.'

Talk to most skiers, though, and they accept their share of the risks involved. It's that kind of sport. Rudi Markl reckoned '15 per cent' of the risk is, indeed should be, down to the skier. 'You can't take that away from them,' he said. 'After all, nobody is forcing the skiers to do it.' Anita Wachter accepts the dangers as part of the job. 'Yes, sometimes I ask myself why I do this,' she said. 'But I think Ulli would want us to continue, to keep going forward.'

The debate since Maier's death has focused less on who was to blame than on the need to reduce the skiers' speed - especially women skiers' in spite of the fact that it was the women themselves who a few years ago pressed to be allowed to compete on the same downhill courses as the men at a time when they felt they were being insufficiently stretched. That attitude is changing.

Wachter, along with the former leading Austrian skiers Anne

marie Moser-Proll and Petra Kronberger and numerous others, agree now that some downhills are too fast and icy. It has become more of a problem in recent winters when mild weather has forced venues to use artificial snow - which tends to be an icier version of the real kind - and technological advances in equipment have also led to increased speeds. The international skiing federation says it will look at the problem, while in Lillehammer efforts to make the downhill course for the Winter Olympics as safe as possible are being redoubled.

But it will all have come too late for Ulli Maier.


1959 Toni Mark (Austria), giant slalom at Wallberg, Germany John Semmelinck (Canada), downhill, Garmisch-Partenkirchen

1964 Ross Milne (Australia), downhill, Innsbruck, Austria Walter Mussner (Italy), training, Cervinia, Italy

1970 Michel Bozon (France), downhill, Megeve, France

1972 David Novelle (USA), downhill, Winter Park, Colorado

1975 Michel Dujon (France), training, Tignes, France

1979 Leonardo David (Italy), downhill, Lake Placid, New York (died in 1986 after seven years in coma)

1984 Josef Walcher (Austria, 1978 downhill world champion), promotional downhill event, Rohrmoos, Austria

1991 Gernot Reinstadler (Austria), training, Wengen, Switzerland

1994 Ulrike Maier (Austria), downhill, Garmisch-Partenkirchen

(Photographs omitted)

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