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GENEVA — The biggest puzzle in Alpine skiing ahead of the Sochi Olympics was working out what happened to Tina Maze.
After her historically good season last year — 11 World Cup wins, record points total, one world championship gold medal — the 30-year-old Slovenian fit perfectly as a potential Winter Games star.
Maze celebrated victories with her exuberant trademark, a cartwheeling handspring across the snow.
This season, she was clearly unhappy as her winless streak stretched into January, unwilling or unable to explain what she described in her blog as “mediocre results.”
All that changed last Saturday in Italy.
Maze raced to an elusive first win in a sun-bathed downhill at picture postcard Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomite mountains.
“AAAAAAUUUUUUUUU! #Cortina#victory#ican#iwill,” she wrote on Twitter.
“When you win a lot you don’t learn much,” Maze said at a news conference. “With my ups and downs, it’s a lot of learning.”
The kind of knowledge, perhaps, that came from doing jigsaw puzzles growing up in Crna.
Maze shared her childhood pastime in a blog posting this week to help explain her improving form with one more World Cup stop, in Kranjska Gora in her native Slovenia this weekend, before heading to Russia.
“How many puzzles will we put together, will have to wait, but the pieces are opening up and setting in the right place,” Maze wrote. “Describing the way the whole things are taking place in a poetic way is close to my heart.”
Maze displayed her artistry off the slopes last year with a hit song in her home country, “My way is my decision,” that seemed in tune with her performances on skis.
A decade after her Olympic debut at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Maze had matured from giant slalom specialist into a genuine threat in all five Alpine events.
She found the right balance of speed and technique to win at least one World Cup race in each event last season while amassing 2,414 points — racing past Lindsey Vonn’s year-old mark by 434.
Maze also proved a big-event performer again, getting at least one medal from her fourth straight major championships since taking giant slalom silver from the 2009 worlds.
Two Olympic silvers, in GS and super-G, followed at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and she upgraded to GS gold and super-combined silver at the 2011 worlds.
A five-title sweep was even talked about at the 2013 worlds in Schaldming, Austria, when Maze won the opening super-G race skiing directly before Vonn, who crashed out horribly landing a jump. Maze eventually settled on that one gold and two more silvers in GS and super-combined.
Still, her disappointment when losing was difficult to mask, as when surrendering the season-long World Cup slalom title in the final race to Mikaela Shiffrin.
The American teenager’s sensational second run to overhaul a 1.17-second deficit and claim the crystal trophy left Maze sobbing in the finish area in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
Maze’s emotions were equally apparent in December when leaving downcast and without speaking after a super-G race in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where she won two races in her title-winning season.
“We have a lot of problems with the concentration,” her Italian coach and boyfriend Andrea Massi said then. “It’s not technical, it’s not physical, it’s not (ski) material. It’s too much pressure. It’s only this problem.”
The next day, Massi was absent through a reported illness when Maze skied angry in the GS and completed her third-place finish with a determined fist punch.
“When things do not work for me, I get closed up and I (am) completely inaccessible,” Maze wrote in a Jan. 4 blog posting. “Maybe it’s my fault, maybe this is my protection. That is just who I am. I certainly do not want to be rude.”
That aspect of her personality was evident in Cortina ahead of her breakthrough win. Asked if she was on track for Sochi, she offered little insight.
“More or less,” Maze said curtly.
If the answer did not fully convince at the time, it made sense by Saturday afternoon when she told media how she had recaptured a winning style.
“That was really good because Andrea was always saying to ski without feelings,” Maze said. “But sometimes that’s not possible.”