Matthias Mayer Interview | We Meet The Austrian Skiing Star With Two Olympic Golds
”I always dreamt about getting one Olympic medal. It was never my dream to win a second gold...”
We’ve teamed up with Dainese to shine a spotlight on luminaries from across the world of action sports and adventure – from big name athletes to epic innovations that showcase ambition and achievement above and beyond the norm. Here, we speak to Matthias Mayer, the Austrian skier who won his second Olympic gold medal at the Pyeongchang games.
“Yeah, it is… different," says alpine ski star Matthias Mayer, after a short pause to think. “It really is different."
We’ve just asked the Austrian what life is like now that he’s a two-time Olympic gold medallist, having added a super G gold from Pyeongchang to his downhill prize from Sochi four years earlier.
“I’m happy. I never really thought about this happening, but it does feel different to before."
Your life is bound to change a little when you’ve just written yourself into the history books of both your home nation and the most famous sporting event in the world.
If there was ever a man destined by narrative to succeed at the Olympic Games though, there's a strong argument for it being Matthias Mayer.
The Austrian’s father Helmut Mayer won a silver medal at the 1988 Games in Nakiska in Calgary - the first Olympics to feature the super G event in alpine skiing - two years before Matthias' birth.
Matthias grew up on skis, with Olympic and World Championship silverware dotted around the house, and with the father who had put those prizes there doubling up as his inevitable skiing instructor.
“I have been skiing my whole life," he says. “I started skiing when I was two years old, then I would go out with a couple of friends on the mountain everyday. That was my childhood.
“When I was 10 I began to race every weekend. We had one or two races and then there were more and more every year and of course my father was my trainer, especially at the beginning. It was always a good time."
"I always dreamt about getting one Olympic medal, and going to Pyeongchang I already had that gold. It was never my dream to win a second gold"
If you wrote down the events of Matthias’ life and presented them as fiction, ending with the skier defying the odds to win gold at the Olympic Games, the editor you submitted the story to would probably tell you that the tale was all a little predictable.
The kid who dreamt of following his father's footsteps into the Olympics does exactly that - and then goes one better. It's an all-too-obvious fairytale.
Matthias admits: “The Olympics was always special to me, because I was around the event my whole life. Going to my first Olympics was so huge. It was a very special moment for me.
“I really had a good shape there, and I always dreamt of winning an Olympic medal. It was never very important for me to win gold, but when I won in Sochi is was such an amazing moment.
“It was my first victory. I had never won a World Cup before. It was crazy."
For many people an Olympic gold medal in the sport they love would be the pinnacle of their career. For Matthias it was only the start.
To emphasise what he mentioned before, Matthias had never won at elite level before he took the top prize in Sochi. It was very much an underdog win. In 2013, on the World Cup circuit, Matthias had finished 25th overall in the downhill, the discipline where he would win gold the following year. He hadn’t managed a podium in downhill all season.
He had shown his potential in the super G though, where he came third in the overall.
On the back of his Olympic success, Matthias went on to take his first World Cup win in alpine skiing when he won the Lenzerheide downhill in Switzerland, one month after winning the Olympics in Russia. He kicked on to finish fourth in the super G and fifth overall in the downhill.
In 2015, Matthias racked up two more wins - his first in super G and his second in downhill, both in Saalbach in Austria, and by his 2017 super-G win in Kitzbuhel and the time he rocked up at Pyeongchang the next year, it was impossible to ever call Mayer an underdog.
"Hermann Maier was flying through the air for 30 metres and I was just in the air for 30cm"
“It was different in Pyeongchang," he remembers. “Because I was defending my gold medal in downhill. I always dreamt about getting one Olympic medal, and going to Pyeongchang I already had that gold. It was never my dream to win a second gold.
“I was aiming for that, but I was just trying my best. I was a little bit more relaxed than I was in Sochi, and that did make a difference."
Still, Matthias hasn't had an easy road to those golds. After success on the back of Sochi, Mayer suffered a season-ending injury when he crashed out of the Val Gardena World Cup in Italy and broke two vertebrae.
Matthias has always been a vocal supporter and was an early adopter of the Dainese D-Air Ski System, an innovative airbag system that many top skiers and medal winners now use on the world cup tour, but this was the first time the new system had ever been activated during an actual race.
Though Mayer’s injuries were serious enough to put him out of action for months and force him to struggle back to health and form over the next few years, and in the lead up to Pyeongchang, some suggested that the airbag system may have saved him from a more serious spine injury.
“From the beginning when I heard Dainese had something to give us more protection I wanted involved," Matthias says. “I tested it a lot of times and they have good people who were great at turning my thinking into reality."
A win in Kitzbuhel was Matthias’ way of showing that he was back to his best. And when the skier crossed the finish line of the super G in Pyeongchang in one minute and 24.44 seconds, 0.13 seconds faster than his nearest rival Beat Feuz and 0.18 seconds clear of Norwegian Kjetil Jansrud in third place, he was back to making Olympic history.
Seeing an Austrian on an Olympic skiing podium is nothing new of course. The country have a full 37 Olympic gold medals to their name in alpine skiing. Austria's total medal count from alpine skiing adds up to a monumental 121 medals. For reference, Switzerland are second to Austria in the all-time alpine medal table with 66 medals (22 gold) and the USA in third place have 47 medals and 17 golds.
Matthias Mayer’s gold was the country’s first in the men’s super G in 20 years though, and put an end to a spell of Norwegian dominance which has seen Norway win every single men’s gold medal in super G since 1998.
The last non-Norwegian male to win the super G was Hermann Maier, an Austrian skier widely regarded as the best male super G skier in history and one of alpine skiing’s all time greats.
The manner in which Maier won in 1998 was far from ordinary, either. The Austrian famously walked away from one of skiing's great crashes in the downhill just three days before winning the super G - and Matthias Mayer somehow managed to near-enough replicate Maier's feat this year.
Mayer had a huge crash in the slalom stage of the men’s combined at the Pyeongchang Games, clipping a flag, cannoning down the slope and taking out a cameraman on the way to a serious head knock. Two days later he finished ninth in the downhill and failed to defend his gold medal. Three days later, he won his second gold medal in the men's super G.
“It’s very similar but Hermann Maier was flying through the air for 30 metres and I was just in the air for 30cm," Matthias laughs. “That’s a big difference!"
We ask if, given the evidence, Matthias believes future Austrian super G hopefuls should try and crash out in some event or other a few days before competing at the Olympics.
He laughs, but gathers his senses: “No. No I wouldn’t do that. Unless they were 100% sure they could win again! But no, it’s not a good idea.
"I wasn’t sure if I could race, because my head was hurting really badly"
“It was really bad for me. I wasn’t sure if I could race, because my head was hurting really badly.
“I got some therapy at the start of the downhill race though and then was able to focus on both. In both the downhill and in the super G I was full of adrenaline, though. I was so excited."
And with good reason too. That excitement carried Mayer to a second Olympic gold medal from as many Olympic Games.
“The Olympics are so special," Matthias says. “It’s not like in the World Cup where we’re a bunch of guys who meet each other every day on a World Cup slope. There are so many sports and so many people.
“It’s something different because you can see how hard everyone else works, not just the people in your own sport, and for me that's what makes it so special."
As for the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022? There’s a whole lot of World Cup skiing to do before then, but Matthias admits: “of course it’s an aim".
At this point, you’d be silly to write him off.
Stay tuned to our Dainese Luminaries hub for more from the world of ambition and adventure.
Next month we meet Troy Brosnan, the 24-year-old downhill mountain biker who has been Australian champion four times and is looking to take the world by storm.