HAKUBA, Japan -- Down at a wooden chalet called Austria House, they brought out softball-sized apples covered in corporate logos. They brought out skis and bindings that bent like bananas. They even trotted out three-dozen Olympic athletes who wore goofy grins and carried around skis like lumber.
And finally, they brought out the Herminator.
This is what it's like to be the hottest ski-racer on the planet, Hermann Maier of Austria.
He's a skiing phenomenon and a lounge act, caught up in the wildest, weirdest tale to hit the ski circuit in years. The ex-bricklayer is the unbeatable, unstoppable man of the mountain.
And in the Super Bowl on Snow, the men's downhill at the Winter Olympics, Maier is among the favorites for gold.
The downhill is due to be broadcast live in prime time tonight in the United States. And for many in America, it will be the first chance to see the European star and experience, firsthand, Hermania.
The man is locked in a dream season in which he has won 10 races, including five in January, virtually sewing up the overall World Cup title.
Besides the downhill, Maier will be a threat in the giant slalom, the Super-G and the combined, bidding to become the first Alpine skier since Jean-Claude Killy in 1968 to win three golds at an Olympics.
"It's wonderful now," he said. "It's the right moment."
A smile broke across his face and his blue eyes darted, as photographers and reporters encircled him.
But Maier wouldn't budge. He is built like a pillar -- 5 feet 10 and nearly 200 pounds.
And he has to withstand a lot of pressure. Austria has fallen head over heels for its new skiing star. The media there has tagged him with nicknames like "Das Monster," "Alien" and "Herminator." His every move on a slope is watched and dissected.
"I am not a monster," he said. "I am Hermann Maier. Maybe I am the Herminator."
The stress of becoming an Austrian ski hero was so great that Maier excused himself from the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbuhel, the country's premier downhill event. His excuse was inflammation of the skin on his shins.
The reality was, Austria's skiing coaches didn't want to burn out their brightest star in an Olympic season.
"Sure, I'm a little bit nervous," Maier said. "But the Olympics are races like any other."
Maier is skiing's natural, virtually coming out of nowhere to dominate his sport. Raised 50 miles south of Salzburg in an Alpine village named Reitdorf, his talent was obvious early and he appeared to have a bright ski-racing career ahead of him until he sprouted nearly a foot in less than a year. By 15, chronic knee pain had forced him to quit the slopes and select a trade.
He became a bricklayer.
For seven years, Maier picked up a trowel and went off to work. He liked it.
"Every building is my favorite," he said.
But skiing was his obsession. He followed the exploits of Austria's explosive national team. And he decided to try and match them, but on his own time. He got back onto the slopes, working as a part-time ski instructor at his father's ski school in Flachau.
When Tommy Moe of the United States won the 1994 Olympic downhill gold, Maier was on a mountain in Flachau, giving a ski lesson.
He stuck to his routine. And his dream. In the summer, he handled the bricks. In the winter, he handled the snow.
"I was not so unhappy," he said. "I looked at other racers. I tried everything to come back. And now, I am here."
He copied the slashing style of Italy's irrepressible Alberto Tomba, carving the straightest lines down the mountain in a high-speed, high-risk quest to gobble up ground and cut his times.
Maier entered just about any local race he could, trying to strut his stuff and earn the attention of Austria's national coaching staff, which has a mountain of terrific skiers to choose from.
On Jan. 6, 1996, Maier was a "forerunner" at a World Cup giant slalom in Flachau, creating a route for the official competitors to follow. He was so fast, he earned his ticket out of the boondocks.
Now, he owns the World Cup circuit.
"Hermann Maier is on fire," Moe said. "He is raising skiing to a whole other level."
U.S. coach Bill Egan said Maier "skis on a very fast line. It takes tremendous physical ability and strength to do what he's doing."
Maier first impressed his Austrian teammates during last summer's training in South America, when he uncorked scorching runs in Super-G practice.
"That was where we recognized he was unbelievably fast," said fellow team member Hans Knauss. "But for him to have a winter like this is unbelievable."
"He has a lot of self-confidence at the moment," Knauss added. "He's skiing 100 percent. I know he's skiing a direct line, but I think the secret at the moment is in his head."
In the lead up to the Olympic downhill, Maier sought to turn down the expectations. Asked if he could win, he began to lament the course at Happo'one, a 2,920-meter plunge that includes three jumps, a winding slope and a narrow section called the "Vacuum Tube."
"It's flat here, and a lot of skiers can win here in the downhill," he said. "It's not technical. It's a little bit of a problem."
Knauss tried to explain Maier's reluctance to make a prediction.
"If I talk before a race and say I'll win it and I win it -- great," Knauss said. "But if I don't, it's hard to go home."
Maier plans on going home with a few medals. But it's the downhill gold that is the most valuable in the sport.
The biggest threats to Maier could come from his teammates, Stefan Eberharter and Andreas Schifferer. Italy's Kristian Ghedina and France's Jean-Luc Cretier could also crash through the medal barrier.
The Austrians, whose "Wonder Team" has been nearly untouchable all winter, would prefer a sweep.
"One, two, three?" Maier said. "I don't know. I hope I'm on the top."
Where: Nagano, Japan
When: Through Feb. 22
Today's TV: TNT--6-7 p.m.; chs. 13, 9--4-6 p.m.; 8-11 p.m.; 11: 35 p.m.
Pub Date: 2/07/98