Will Sochi Be Tina’s Time?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
With Lindsey Vonn sidelined because of a knee injury, skier Tina Maze has the high-wattage talent, looks and personality to fill the diva deficiency at the Sochi Olympics.
Downhill ski racing is not a sport where competitors show a lot of skin. Unlike, say, beach volleyball or swimming, where athletes’ attire leaves little to the imagination, skiers are buried under layers of long underwear, nylon, helmets, gloves and goggles, with little more than the curve of a chin exposed.
So when Slovenia’s star skier Tina Maze stripped down to her sports bra in front of television cameras after a super giant slalom, or Super G, race in Italy last January, it grabbed people’s attention — and international headlines.
Maze made a splash when she decided to ditch the Slovenian national ski team to form her own — Team aMaze.
But what really got tongues wagging was not her ripped abs, however, but the message Maze inked in capital letters across her top: “NOT YOUR BUSINESS” — with a little heart symbol, of course.
It was 30-year-old’s sassy response to a furor stoked by opponents over the underwear she wore during an earlier race. Switzerland’s ski team filed a formal complaint that her undergarment made her more aerodynamic, giving her an unfair advantage in a sport where split seconds can make the difference between winning and losing.
Skiing’s international ruling body ultimately exonerated Maze, who hails from the Alps region of what was once a chunk of Yugoslavia, concluding that her underwear was A-OK for racing. But Maze wanted to make her point a little more emphatically.
”Girls just want to have fun. I like to have fun also,” she told reporters after the stunt. ”The first thing important for me is to ski fast, and I was skiing fast. Then I can joke also a little bit about myself, about everything around me.”
Indeed, attitude is all part of the package with Maze, a striking 5 foot 8 inch brunette who models, plays the piano and recorded a kitschy pop single, ”My Way Is My Decision,” that was a big hit in her tiny native country, which shares a border with Italy, Austria and Croatia, racking up nearly 1 million views on YouTube.
The Slovenian’s performance trumps anything even the estimable Ms. Vonn has accomplished in a single year.
In 2008 Maze made a splash when she decided to ditch the Slovenian national ski team to form her own — Team aMaze — run by Italian coach and boyfriend, Andrea Massi, who is more than a decade her senior. It was a maverick move that’s paid big dividends for Maze, who won two silver medals at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 before a career-defining, record-shattering season in 2013. It certainly didn’t hurt that American superstar and chief rival Lindsey Vonn was sidelined with a knee injury most of last year. But the Slovenian’s performance trumps anything even the estimable Ms. Vonn has accomplished in a single year.
Maze won the women’s World Cup, Alpine ski racing’s top annual prize, last year with the best overall performance across a series of races in the five types of courses — slalom, giant slalom, Super G, downhill and combined. She became one of only six women in history to be the top finisher in all five of ski racing’s events in their careers, and one of only three to have done it in a single season — a feat akin to winning all four tennis Grand Slams in a single year.
In 2013 Maze accumulated the most points — given for each race finish — that any racer, man or woman, has ever tallied. Her score of 2,024 broke Austrian male phenom Hermann Meier’s record of 2,000, set more than 10 years ago.
Uros Pavlocic, a former member of the Slovenian national team who competed with Maze, called her 2013 season ”the best year an Alpine skier ever had. The number of points she got, the number of podiums and victories she had was quite outstanding.”
Pavlocic, now a coach with an American youth racing program in Minnesota, overlapped with Maze in the early 2000s, when she first reached the national team and he was towards the end of the his career. He remembers her as extremely talented but also mercurial.
”I think she was kind of unhappy,” Pavlocic says. ”That comes from being a perfectionist. I think she knew she had more talent and … she wasn’t as good as she could be.”
That started to change when she left the national team and formed an organization entirely focused on her and her performance, which has soared over the past five or so years. ”Everybody on that team, their focus is results for Tina Maze,” says Pavlocic.
But there’s one thing that still eludes her: an Olympic gold medal. She could scoop up as many as five at Sochi. That would endear her even more to her sports-mad country of 2 million, which regularly ranks atop the Olympic tables for most medals per capita.
But a rocky first half to the 2014 racing season (which runs from October to March) is raising doubts about whether Maze will be in top form on skiing’s biggest stage. Pavlocic wonders if she’s focused too much on strength training, noting that adding muscle bulk can affect a person’s touch on skis. Maze’s response to her recent struggles: swapping coaches at the beginning of the year, just a month before the Olympics.
Another risky play, but then Maze has proven that certain gambles can pay off. As she coos in her music video, ”My desire is a weapon against my fears.” Treacly? Certainly. But it pretty much captures the fierce competitor in Maze. Which is why no one who knows anything about skiing would write off her chances on Sochi’s slopes.