Despite its small size, Slovenia produces an astonishing number of world-class athletes, particularly in the winter disciplines. Slovenes follow Maze’s every move, her every victory making front-page headlines, while her second or third place finishes feel like gross failures. The media holds autopsies of what’s been going wrong, with each race studied from all angles, and Maze’s mood and post-race interviews combed over by guest psychologists on morning talk shows. Slovenes can be fair-weather fans, quick to hop on a winning bandwagon, or off it just as quickly, but that year, the nation was held enraptured by their champion.
Maze is one of only six women in history to have won all five World Cup alpine ski events (Vonn is another), and one of only three who managed to win all five disciplines in one season. While Maze is an all-rounder, Vonn is all about speed: she’s like a closer in baseball, striking fear in her opponents, particularly with the high, hard stuff—she’s far better at the sprint events than the dexterous slaloms. But Vonn was also injured for much of the last two seasons, and she did not participate in the Winter Olympics. It was a disappointment to fans of great rivalries, for Maze vs. Vonn is like the Red Sox vs. the Yankees.
In the 2011 World Cup season, Vonn came in second overall, and Maze in third. In 2012, Vonn came in first overall with 1980 points, and Maze in second place with 1402. Then came 2013 and Maze’s world record. Vonn won the downhill title, her strongest event, but Maze dominated in the rest of the disciplines: first place in super G, a speed event; first place in the more technical giant slalom; and first place in super combined, a single event made up of one downhill and two slalom runs. Maze finished with a world-record 2,414, eclipsing the former record of 2000 points, held by the Austrian skier Hermann Meier. To put her dominance in 2013 in perspective, the second-place finisher that year, Höefl-Riesch, managed only 1,101 points—less than half of Maze’s total. The top male skier that season, Marcel Hirscher, won the World Cup with only 1,535 points—nearly 1,000 less than Maze.
During the 2012/2013 season, everything went right. The following season was less promising, but this was largely due to the impending Winter Olympics. Maze demonstrated that she had been saving herself, taking home a pair of gold medals at Sochi. But her arch-rival, Vonn, did not participate at all, nursing an injury and, as she recently revealed, debilitating bouts of depression.
The new women’s alpine ski season is just beginning, and it will showcase the Maze-Vonn rivalry, though there are a half-dozen athletes who can match them race-for-race. There are a good dozen skiers who have a chance to come in first on any given day. Maria Hoefl-Riesch is solid and consistent; another Olympic medalist, Anna Feininger, is strong and young. Is there a rookie with the chops to challenge Maze’s record? Possibly—American Mikaela Shiffrin came in 5th overall in 2013 at just 18 years of age. If she keeps up her current level and improves over the many years she has ahead of her, than she’s got a shot.