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Tina amazes in so many ways

Tina Maze of Slovenia reacts after the Super G part of the World Cup Women's super combined race in Altenmarkt-Zauchensee January 12, 2014.
Tina Maze of Slovenia reacts after the Super G part of the World Cup Women's super combined race in Altenmarkt-Zauchensee January 12, 2014.

By Manuele Lang

(Reuters) - Tina Maze knows how to make an impression on and off the snow.

The record-breaking Slovenian skier's past exploits include flashing her bra in a finish-area protest and singing her way into her country's hit parade with a catchy "My Way is My Decision".

More importantly, the woman who could be competing for medals in all five Alpine events at Sochi has commanded attention by winning races and becoming the 2013 overall World Cup champion in record style.

The 30-year-old, who set up her own "Team to aMaze" training squad in 2008 after falling out with the national setup, won the overall World Cup as the first skier of either sex to surpass 2,000 points in a single season.

Maze also notched up a record 24 podium appearances in a single season, beating Austrian Hermann Maier's mark of 22, and celebrated 11 victories in all disciplines - downhill, Super-G, giant slalom, slalom and Super-combined.

One of only six women to have won in all five events, and only three ever to have done so in a single season, Maze has 22 World Cup victories to her name so far.

At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, she won silver in super-G and giant slalom on the slopes in Whistler and later described on her website (www.tinamaze.com) what that had felt like.

"You lose words, you stare, you smile, tears are coming down, it is pure pleasure, you feel the top, you are shaking," she wrote. "I did something extraordinary and 'this is it' is going through your mind."

The aim is to go one step better in Sochi but this season has been an unexpected struggle, with changes to her close-knit team and technical problems. A second place at the Val d'Isere downhill just before Christmas is her highest finish to date.

This month, as part of an increasingly urgent attempt to turn things around, she hired former Swiss women's team head coach Mauro Pini to replace Walter Ronconi after less than a year with the Italian.

"I think it's always good to change every few years, it's never good if you work with the same people for too long time," she had told Reuters earlier in the season.

"It's time to say goodbye and go forward, and to make new challenges. I think changes are always difficult, especially for me, I like the routine more than the changes."

NOT YOUR BUSINESS

Maze wrapped up last season with a win in the giant slalom in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. In the opening slalom of the 2013/14 season at Soelden in Austria, she finished only 18th.

"I had too many things in mind, I couldn't concentrate," she said. "I wouldn't say that the problem was the pressure. It was more the lack of energy for what I needed."

Maze's form has fluctuated, on the podium one race and out of the top 10 the next. After the Val d'Isere downhill, she was 11th in a giant slalom in the French resort and then 14th and 15th in a giant and slalom in Lienz.

"It's a different feeling from last year, which doesn't mean that I'm not skiing fast, or good," said the Slovenian.

Spirited and determined, a requirement in a sport where downhillers reach speeds of more than 125 kph, Maze has always been her own person.

When, in 2012, the governing FIS confiscated her racing underwear following complaints from Swiss rivals who suspected her of gaining an aerodynamic advantage from plastic components, she made her thoughts known in her own fashion.

Maze unzipped her ski suit in the finish area at the Italian resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo to reveal a white sports bra with the words "Not your business" written across the front.

The gesture put her image on magazine front covers as well as the sports pages.

An accomplished pianist, Maze likes to entertain her fellow racers whenever she can on the five-month tour that makes up the World Cup season from October to March.

Fluent in four languages, she sang in English on her song that became a hit in Slovenia with the official video racking up more than half a million You Tube viewings since December 2012.

"I want to be a tale they tell over the years, to inspire the world. So I've got to be stronger, I've got to prove I'm a winner," Maze sang. "My way is my decision, my power is my vision."

HARD WORK

Maze, who comes from the town of Crna na Koroskem near the Austrian border, started skiing at the age of three.

She made her World Cup debut on home snow in Maribor in January 1999 where she finished 32nd in a Super-G a few months before her 16th birthday,

Since then she has made Slovenia proud, with former Prime Minister Janez Jansa last winter hailing her as "an inspiration to all Slovenians and living proof that all obstacles can be overcome with hard work".

In her early career, Maze watched Croatia's four times Olympic gold medalist Janica Kostelic dominate women's ski racing in the early 2000s and hoped one day to do the same.

Her wish came true in 2011 when she became giant slalom world champion and she added another gold in 2013 with the Super-G title.

"Now my time has come and I hope this fairy tale will last," she declared after possibly the best ever season by a woman skier, and one comparable to Jean-Claude Killy's remarkable 1967 campaign during which the Frenchman won 12 of the 16 World Cup races he entered.

Excelling in the three classic Alpine specialties - downhill, slalom and giant slalom - Maze became one of the few champions to have led the World Cup from start to finish.

She did not win as many events in total as Switzerland's Vreni Schneider in 1989 (14) or Lindsey Vonn in 2012 (12) but her capacity to excel in each specialty was as impressive.

Now, with Sochi looming, she wants and needs to raise her game higher than ever.

"I know I can't be perfect but I know I can always do better," she says. "I'm never happy with myself, I will never be fully happy with myself.

"My vision of perfection is so unreal sometimes that I cannot come there. Maybe once, I'll be there, but for now, I'm never happy. I want to do better and better, every day".

(Writing by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Tony Goodson)

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