Last "dance" in Maribor
"Farmers in some places in Carniola, especially near Turjak and there about, are familiar with a rare invention which I have not seen in any other country; they slide down high hills on snow, in winter, with incredible speed into the valley. For this purpose they use two wooden planks," wrote the famous historian, Janez Vajkard Valvasor, around 325 years ago, seeming to suggest that Slovenians were born with skis by their cradle.
A nation of avid skiers has, however, had to wait for a girl from the small town of Črna for global recognition on the grandest of stages. That girl is Tina Maze, and yet her path to glory was not straight but long and winding, like the many downhills, super-Gs, giant slaloms and slaloms she won during her career.
Hard earned glory
Tina Maze was three years old when she made her first skiing "steps" on the slopes of the surrounding hills. A gifted skier, she won the first official FIS competition she entered, with a starting number of 125. The beginning of her career was extremely promising, she quickly became a serial winner of lower ranked races, along with legendary Croatian skier, Janica Kostelič.
Then, in 2002 at just 19 years old, she won her first race on the professional circuit. It was the giant slalom in Sölden, an Austrian ski resort that is traditionally the venue for the season premiere of the Alpine World Cup. She was on the cusp of becoming her childhood hero, Mateja Svet, and yet she failed to deliver on the high expectations. Maze, an all-round often emotional competitor, won "only" six times in the next six years
A perfectionist and often a hard character to get along with, Maze fell out with the national skiing federation. In 2008, when the world economy had already been sucked into the vortex of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, she finally parted ways with the Slovenian national team, and it proved to be one of the best decisions of her professional life. A decision that meant having to survive the almost inhuman training regime of her partner, Andrea Massi, but a decision that ultimately led first to the Everest of Alpine skiing, the World Cup and then to the summit of Mount Olympus.
A tale of foes
Maze spins a tale of determination and glory like no other in Slovenian sport, and yet it could have easily turned into a tale of "could have been". The first part of Maze's professional career was marred by bad results in big competitions, convincing many that she was mentally fragile and therefore not cut out to be a champion like, for instance, Janica Kostelič, who seemed to never stop winning. Maze rarely climbed out of the shadow of the Croatian superstar. Janica's shock retirement at just 25 years of age gave Maze a new purpose, but there was already another foe in her way - Lindsey Vonn.
Animosity may fade with time. Vonn, although a specialist in speed events, is on her way to becoming the best female skier ever, with 76 wins so far, and yet she may feel underappreciated in her homeland. Though tremendously talented, Americans don't really know her for her skiing pedigree, but more as a celebrity, an ex of Tiger Woods. Tina Maze never had the same problems, although recognised by the tabloids, she was first and foremost a skiing champion in the eyes of her countrymen.
Jordan of skiing
Slovenians have had their fair share of winter champions. Bojan Križaj, Rok Petrovič and Mateja Svet were fan favorites in the eighties, then came the golden nineties with Jure Košir, Mitja Kunc, Urška Hrovat, Špela Pretnar and others. But it was only appropriate that Tina Maze would be the first ever Slovenian to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
Tina Maze eclipses them all. She won two Olympic gold medals and twice as many World Championship medals of the brightest sheen. But what stands out the most is her perfect season of 11 victories and 2,414 points, the highest in skiing history. "I don't see anyone at the moment who could challenge it, the record can only be broken if a skier performs well in all disciplines in a single season," were the words of Janica's brother, Ivica Kostelič, after Maze's perfect season. No one has even come close to Maze's achievement - except for the legendary Austrian skier, Hermann Maier, who collected 2,000 points - and probably no one will, at least not for a very long time.
Once a Golden Fox, always a golden fox
"There is a reason you call 'someone the Michael Jordan of' - Michael Jordon of neurosurgery, or the Michael Jordan of rabbis, or the Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing. - and they know what you're talking about. Because Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of greatness. He is the definition of somebody so good at what they do, that everybody recognises them. That's pretty rare," were the words of praise President Barrack Obama spoke recently about probably the greatest basketball player of all time.
Tina Maze was, without doubt at one point in her career, the Michael Jordan of alpine skiing, a skier so good that everybody couldn't help but recognise it, a skier who could defy the laws of physics and do it with the aesthetics of a ballerina but the mindset of a natural born killer. A true great in the sport, she is about to say goodbye in the best way she knows - in Pohorje, with her ski boots on, hitting the finish line at breakneck speed to the cheers of thousands of fans, hopefully followed by her famous cartwheel in celebration of another, her 27th, victory.
"I was always thinking about it," Maze said after announcing her retirement: "I have a lot of motivation to compete one last time in front of my home crowd." The fans in Maribor, where she has won twice, share her excitement. Three years ago Maze managed to attract 40,000 people to Pohorje, come January we may see another record.