- Associated Press - Saturday, January 25, 2014

CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy (AP) - Defending overall World Cup champion Tina Maze finally got her first victory of the season, winning the prestigious Cortina downhill Saturday to signal a return to form just in time for the Sochi Olympics.

The Slovenian clocked 1 minute, 37.79 seconds down the Olympia delle Tofane course, which was bathed in sunshine, then performed her trademark handstand celebration during the podium proceedings.

“There were a lot of emotions,” Maze said. “It was a really long time. … When I find the right feeling like I found it today I can ski fast.”

Marianne Kaufmann-Abderhalden of Switzerland finished second, 0.27 seconds behind, and Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein was third, 0.38 back.

Maze had a record-breaking season a year ago with 11 wins. This season, she had only three podium results - until this race.

“When you win a lot you don’t learn much,” Maze said. “With my ups and downs it’s a lot of learning.”

Two weeks ago, Maze made a staff change in her personal team, which is run by her boyfriend and coach Andrea Massi. They replaced Walter Ronconi with former Switzerland coach Mauro Pini.

The switch seems to have paid off and the timing couldn’t have been better - in the final downhill before the Sochi Games, where the women’s downhill is scheduled for Feb. 12.

Pini urged Maze to put more emotion into her skiing.

“That was really good because Andrea was always saying to ski without feelings,” Maze said. “But sometimes that’s not possible.

“(Pini) brought a lot of peace to our team because compared to Andrea and I he’s one step in front of us,” Maze added. “And that’s what we were expecting from someone in that position. He came really motivated and that makes us easygoing and we have more energy for ourselves.”

Pini was formerly Lara Gut’s personal coach and he led the Swiss men’s squad at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when Didier Defago won gold in downhill. He then coached the Swiss women’s team and more recently was a TV commentator.

“I could sense a good feeling from the first words we shared with each other,” Pini said. “Tina never forgot how to ski. She was always capable, she just needed to focus her energy better and get rid of those negative vibes.”

“At this level a couple different words here or there can create all the difference,” Pini added. “It’s not like we had to start over from scratch.”

With the skies perfectly clear to show off the jagged peaks that provide some of the most spectacular scenery in the Dolomite Range, Maria Hoefl-Riesch finished fourth to follow up her victory in Friday’s downhill. The German said she felt some pain in her left knee after landing a jump awkwardly a day earlier.

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