Tina Maze takes big lead in Olympic giant slalom
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) This, Tina Maze can say now, was what she had in mind all along: An Olympic performance that hadn't been seen in 42 years.
So what if she struggled for race after race on the World Cup circuit, unable to duplicate her record-setting season of a year ago? So what if things grew so dire that she felt compelled to hire a new coach last month?
''This season's plan,'' Maze insisted Tuesday, ''was to show my best here.''
Well, if so, it worked. Dealing with the wild weather better than anyone - the thick snowflakes at the top of the hill, the rain in the middle, the sleet at the bottom - Maze turned in a fantastic opening leg and a sufficient second run to win the giant slalom for her second gold medal of the Sochi Games, after last week's downhill.
The Slovenian skier is the first woman since Marie-Theres Nadig of Switzerland at the 1972 Sapporo Games with enough versatility to master the downhill's test of pure speed and the giant slalom's more technical turns at the same Olympics.
''I'm trying,'' Maze said, ''to be the best.''
She certainly was that during the 2012-13 World Cup season, winning 11 races en route to the overall title and a record point total. This season, though, Maze was hardly herself for months at a time, failing to earn a victory until her 22nd race, a downhill in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, on Jan. 25. That was a couple of weeks after she installed a new coach, a change her boyfriend, Andrea Massi, called ''a difficult decision.''
As for the dip in form up until now, Massi said: ''Maybe she was just keeping it in her pocket for the Olympics.''
On Tuesday, her first run - when she was the first racer down the hill, a big advantage on soft snow - gave her a lead of nearly a half-second, and so she was the last of the top 30 skiers to go in the second session. Her two-leg time of 2 minutes, 36.87 seconds edged super-G gold medalist Anna Fenninger of Austria by 0.07 seconds. Defending champion Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany got the bronze, 0.27 slower than Maze.
More than 50 seconds off the pace, arriving 67th of the 67 women who finished both runs, was pop violinist Vanessa-Mae, who competed for Thailand as Vanessa Vanakorn, using the surname of her Thai father.
Mikaela Shiffrin, the 18-year-old American who will be favored in Friday's slalom, was fifth in the giant slalom, her Olympic debut, a half-second off the pace.
''I wanted a gold, but ... I think this was meant to happen,'' Shiffrin said. ''And it's something I'm going to learn from. Next Olympics I go to, I'm sure as heck not getting fifth.''
She gave credit to the medalists for faring so well in the shifting conditions, something her father, Jeff, also noted.
''I think, and it's just a personal bias, that these are the kind of conditions that years of experience help you with,'' Jeff Shiffrin said. ''All sorts of different snow conditions and raining and fog and da-da-da-da-da, and some of the older ladies were able to turn that a little bit to their advantage today.''
One racer, sixth-place finisher Maria Pietilae-Holmner of Sweden, called the way the snow felt to ''skiing on sugar.''
Probably not a coincidence that Maze, Fenninger and Rebensburg all have won Olympic golds in the past.
''You've got to be the strongest mentally on days like today,'' said American Resi Stiegler, who was 29th.
The 30-year-old Maze, who earned silvers in the giant slalom and super-G at the 2010 Olympics, is quite close to already having four medals in Sochi. She was fourth in the super-combined, and fifth in the super-G - in each instance, merely a 10th of a second out of third place.
Between Tuesday's GS runs, Maze watched some of Slovenia's 4-0 victory over Austria to reach the quarterfinals in men's hockey.
''The guys were so good, they just gave me this will to show even more,'' Maze said.
One noteworthy absence from the giant slalom was Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, who has a gold and silver from the Sochi Olympics but has breathing problems from a cold and is hoping that rest will allow her to be ready for the slalom.
It's hardly surprising someone might get sick, given the way the weather swung from sunny and above 50 degrees (10 Celsius) last week to damp and dank and about 32 degrees (0 Celsius) on Tuesday.
And yet Maze seemed to enjoy it. When she crossed the finish line and saw on the scoreboard that she'd won, she belly-flopped onto the slushy snow and pretended to swim the breaststroke.
''We are all wet, so I said, `Why not?''' Maze said. ''It's been a great day for me.''
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