ASPEN - Of her aspiration to compete for an overall title after 303 starts stretched across 15 World Cup seasons, Tina Maze says "it's now or never."
The 29-year-old Slovenian is off to quite a start.
The longtime skiing standout and burgeoning musician was pitch-perfect in a convincing season-opening giant slalom win in Soelden, Austria, in late October. On an unseasonably warm Saturday at the Aspen Winternational, she was even more dominant.
On a hill where she had finished no higher than sixth in 18 starts, Maze, the third skier out of the starting gates, vaulted into first place with a blistering first run down Aspen Mountain's technical, steep Lower Ruthie's Run track.
She fearlessly tackled both the pressure and some tricky shadows in the afternoon and emerged victorious. Her combined time of 1 minute, 59.39 seconds was nearly a second better than her nearest competitor.
"It's an amazing feeling to ski GS like that," a beaming Maze proclaimed as she clutched her gold medal. "I'm having fun, and everything is under control. I don't have to risk too much, and it's just fun to come down."
Aspen podium regular Kathrin Zettel, of Austria, settled for second in 2:00.29, while 2011 champion Viktoria Rebensburg clinched her third consecutive top-three finish here with a time of 2:00.93. The German missed out on a victory by one-hundredth of a second in 2010.
Switzerland's Lara Gut (2:01.12) and Italy's Irene Curtoni (2:01.19) rounded out the top five. Vail teenager Mikaela Shiffrin (2:01.73) laid down the day's third-fastest second run to improve from 18th to ninth, while Lindsey Vonn (2:02.84) faded down the stretch in her return from illness en route to 21st.
"I'm pretty happy being on the podium. This day was pretty hard," Rebensburg said. "I went out in the first race in Soelden, so that's always in your head a little bit, but I tried to push. It's always nice being up there and enjoying the atmosphere, but I still have a lot of work to do.
"Tina is really fast right now."
Maze appears to have been buoyed by the International Ski Federation's new rules restricting the turning radius of GS skis. She is two-for-two in the discipline since the regulation was implemented.
"I think with the power I have, I could not use the old skis the way I wanted to," Maze said. "With these, you can use your power and really go down fast. It feels great to ski the way I do right now."
Great for her but not the competition.
While Austrian Anna Fenninger kept things close in Run 1, crossing the line in 57.88 - 0.12 behind Maze, one of the few who was able to both attack and shed time on the bottom section of the course near Summer Road - the next-fastest competitor was 1.31 off the pace.
Fenninger could not keep the momentum going in the afternoon. She leaned sharply into a turn mere seconds after leaving the start, and her skis slipped out from under her, sending the 23-year-old skidding across the hard snow and off course.
Maze had no such problems - her only bobble on this day came when she failed to stick the landing on her celebratory cartwheel in the finish area.
She amassed a 1.13-second advantage over Zettel at the first split and relinquished little down the stretch.
"I'm on the podium. It cannot be better," said a satisfied Zettel, who was 21st in November 2011's GS on Ajax. The 26-year-old logged six podium finishes in nine races here from 2005 through 2009, highlighted by a win in 2006's GS - her first ever in the discipline.
Added Maze on her first podium finish on U.S. soil: "I'm feeling fit and strong, and I'm taking every run as much as I can. I'm trying not to make mistakes and ski the way I am in training. Everything is going well for me.
"I feel like people are watching me more than they did - it's something different. ... We were working for years to be at the place I am, and now I'd like it to continue this way for the rest of the season. Then we see."
While the season is just three races old, Maze certainly has put the world on notice.
Said reigning overall champion Lindsey Vonn, "I have a lot of work to do to try and keep up with Tina this year."