Tina Maze made history yesterday, and not just as the first world champion to double as a Slovenian pop star. At 31, she's now the oldest female skier to have won gold in a Championship event.
Maze wouldn't care for that introduction, though. As she laughingly implored reporters yesterday, "Hey, guys, I don't want to be the 'oldest!'" Instead, she wants to be the best. In every discipline. Including in the final three events at these World Championships.
For those less obsessed with the strange world of ski racing, it's worth noting that most skiers specialize in just one or two events: either the speed disciplines of downhill and super-G, or the technical events of slalom and giant slalom. (The fifth discipline, the combined, pairs a downhill run with a slalom run). Then there's Maze, the only racer to not only ski five events, but to be a major medal contender in all of them: she's one of just three women in history to have won every discipline in a single season. Already this season, she's grabbed gold in slalom, G.S., and now downhill.
She's shown that versatility this week. At the super-G on Tuesday, the first women's race of the Championships, Maze took silver, coming just 0.03 seconds behind her rival and friend, Anna Fenninger. On the Friday downhill, she edged out Fenninger by 0.02 seconds to clinch gold. Before the Championships, she told herself a showing like this would already have been good enough.
"I was thinking if I do downhill and super-G well, then I should go home and just get ready for Maribor," the next World Cup race, in her home country. "But that's just not me. I just think I have a chance to win some more medals here. So I'll just stay here."
There are a couple of reasons why being able to rock every single discipline is so impressive. For one, each draws on an entirely different sets of skills. For slalom, the most technical, turny discipline, it's all fast feet and quick thinking. For downhill, the fastest and craziest, you need nerves of steel and thighs (and endurance) to match.
On a more immediate level, every hour you're training for one discipline is an hour you're not training for another. In fact, even in the morning before her downhill race, Maze said, she wasn't devoted to visualizing her downhill form or carefully inspecting the course, as all her competitors were: she was training for the giant slalom. That was time away from downhill, and also required a mental switch as quick-change as a slalom turn: a turny, flatter G.S. is far different from a screaming-steep downhill.
Maze obviously has the full spectrum of skills—and the mental agility to pivot between them. On her skis, too, she displays that same sense of ease. The other downhill competitors got thrown around by the course, which was just turny enough to make their lines singularly crucial. (The more turns there are, especially at 80 mph, the easier it is to get late on one gate, then later on the next, and even later on the next, meaning a single microscopic error can lead to you scrubbing a ton of speed, at best, or getting jerked out of the course altogether, at worst.) The snow was also harder, with some micro-ruts that had developed over the past couple of training runs, and you could see their skis getting jounced around. Not Maze: soft and supple all the way down, putting just enough pressure on her edges to carve strong turns, but never looking rigid, letting her glide with, and right over, whatever terrain or texture popped up.
Over the course of a 16-year World Cup career, Maze has started 388 World Cup races. She's medalled in 75 of them. That doesn't count the 29 World championships races she's started (with medals in eight), or the 13 Olympics races (four of which she medalled in). In total? Maze has run 430 of the world's toughest races against the top competition—and earned a spot on the podium in more than a fifth of them.
One thing that's helped, Maze pointed out yesterday, is that she's healthy, which makes a huge difference to whether she can take on every discipline over the course of an event or of a season. And in the high-risk sport of ski racing, "healthy" doesn't mean that she eats her Wheaties and does planks at the gym. It means that Maze is one of very few racers who hasn't sustained a serious injury from an on-hill crash.
At her age, that's practically a miracle: the other names near her in the results list, many of them much younger than her, can often be recognized by their injury histories alone. (Lara Gut, 23, bronze: dislocated hip; Nicole Schmidhofer, 25, fourth: fractured left ankle and partial hamstring tear; Lindsey Vonn, 30, fifth: multiple ACL tears,among other injuries.) Never being injured is "my big thing," Maze acknowledged. That's why, sometimes, she'll take a course a little more conservatively than the other girls, not throwing herself into an especially risky turn to eke out another millisecond of speed unless she feels pretty confident in doing so. "I'd rather stay healthy than be fast," she said.
Still, being on the hills year-in, year-out, with no break for injury or discipline, takes its toll. Mikaela Shiffrin, the 19-year-old Olympic gold medallist in slalom, told me in an interview in the fall that when she became the World Cup champion of slalom in 2013, edging out Maze, the veteran took it in stride. Maze also imparted some advice. "She was upset with herself for being that close and letting it slip away, but she still came up to me, and she shook my hand, gave me a hug, congratulated me," Shiffrin said. "And she was like, 'Don't do every event, ever.' She said, 'It's too tiring.' Because at that point she had had 23 podiums and 16 wins in one year and she'd just had a knockout season and she was tired. I think she was still tired, two years later."
So is it too early to talk about retirement? Asked if she thought it was time to spend more of her energy, say, free-skiing from now on (or making more music videos), she was noncommittal. "I don't think about that. I think about this season. I don't want to think so much forward," she said.
Would the decision be in March? No, she said. "July."
But first, there are three more races at these World Championships—and, possibly, three more podiums to climb.
Freelance journalist Amanda Ruggeri, a former ski racer, writes for publications including the BBC, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. After nearly five years of living (and skiing) in Italy, she now lives in Brooklyn, where she has learned that when it snows, her new neighbors do not share her enthusiasm.