53. Golden Fox- Zlata Lisica Audi FIS Ski World Cup Giant Slalom in Maribor, Slovenia on January 6, 2017
53. Golden Fox- Zlata Lisica Audi FIS Ski World Cup Giant Slalom in Maribor, Slovenia on January 6, 2017

A Special Finish for Tina Maze

The legendary career and whimsical finish of Slovenian alpine star Tina Maze

When Tina Maze, the Slovenian all-star of alpine ski racing, announced her retirement in October, no one was shocked. After all, the 33-year-old had already sat out the 2015-16 season. “I think my body and mind need a longer break than usual,” she had written in her May 2015 press release. In October 2016, at the beginning of what would have been her comeback season, she announced that she’d made her decision. Instead of the full circuit, she would do just one World Cup event: the giant slalom in her home country at Maribor. And then she was done.

Despite some hints as recently as last week that she could change her mind, her race at Maribor this weekend seemed to seal the deal. Less than a minute in, Maze pulled herself to a stop on the side of the course and hugged her coaches. She set off again, waving an arm in the air. And then, inches before the finish line, she stopped once more. She clicked out of her skis. And, raising both skis above her head, she skidded through the finish on her boots, tossing her goggles into the crowd as they cheered.

It was a whimsical end for one of the most talented racers in modern memory.

Growing up in the small town of Črna na Koroškem (population: 2,300) close to the Austrian border, Maze started skiing at three years old on the hill that overlooks the village; there, two slopes with a drop of less than 200 meters (the peak reaches just 789 meters) are serviced by a single 800 meter lift.

By the age of five, she was training with the local boys. “I was always faster, so they were mad at me,” she told me with a grin. She participated in her first organized race at five years old—and won. The medal was made of wood, but it was just a hint of things to come. “That’s how the real fairytale began,” she said.

Since debuting on the World Cup circuit in 1999, Maze has scored 81 podium results and 26 victories on the World Cup circuit and won four Olympic medals (two of them gold). But one of her most jaw-dropping accomplishments is a record that has yet to be beaten.

In 2013, a season in which she had 24 podiums in total, Maze scored the record for the most points in a single season in history among either men or women. Her astonishing 2,414 points crushed Hermann Maier’s previous record, of 2,000 points from 13 years earlier. Because points reflect the results of every race throughout the season, they’re considered the best signifier of overall performance across all disciplines. Even Maze’s long-time rival Lindsey Vonn—who holds the record for most World Cup victories in history but specializes more in speed events—hasn’t been able to crack 2,000 points, though she’s come close.

Maze’s choice to have a little fun on her last run wasn’t, necessarily, as bizarre as it was reported to be. Racers can do whimsical things on their retirement runs. And Maze may have decided to go in a more whimsical direction still after the FIS decided to deny her a status of “injured” for the previous season, which would have protected her ranking; withholding that meant she had to start after the top 30 racers, making it even tougher to make a splash by getting onto the podium.

But her freestyle ending made two things clear. First, she wanted to enjoy the last time she’d hear the home crowd’s cheers. It may have felt particularly cathartic for Maze, whose World Cup career began with a giant slalom here, at the age of just 15, in 1999.

And second, she’s not planning on coming back, at least for now.

“It was too hard on myself, mentally and physically. Doing all events—it’s really intense. I needed to quit, somehow, and decide,” Maze told me of that year-long break that led to her decision to retire. “I needed time to feel healthy again. I was so tired. My body was really tired. I’m getting back [my health], but for one year I was sleeping till 11 o’clock, where before I was waking up at 5. The timing with skiing—it’s really hard. You have to wake up at 5 every day, go up, it’s cold. It’s nice work, but if you’re doing it every day for 14 years, 15 years, it gets tough.”

That’s not to mention the added complexity of training and racing for skiers like Maze who compete in every single discipline. It’s an unusual choice for a number of reasons. First, each discipline requires different skills, a different approach, and different gear; you have to be a particularly versatile person to go from 155cm skis making tight, quick turns to 210cm skis screaming down the hill at 70 mph the next. “You have to know how to adapt to longer skis, to adapt your warm-up, to adapt your mindset. There are so many things that you have to think about. Maybe even listen to other music, which I did as well. Music for slalom is really rock and roll; for downhill, you need something crazy but calm,” she said.

More unusually still, Maze was successful in all of the disciplines: with her super-G win at St Anton in 2013, she became only the sixth woman in history to win in all five.

One of the other challenges of being an all-rounder is that every minute spent training for one discipline is time you’re not spending training for another. As Maze told me at the World Alpine Ski Championships in Beaver Creek in 2015, even on the morning of her downhill race that week, she was training giant slalom. “I needed ten years to be fast in speed. It’s not like technical disciplines, where you can really train and be good at it. To get that feeling in speed, I believe, takes more time, a lot of training. On the other side, [when you train speed], you lose some time for technical events—so it’s kind of tricky, how to program the training,” she says now. Not that she’d have done it any differently: “I saw [being an] all-rounder as different meals. One’s meat, one’s pasta, one’s fish. It’s not just pasta. I found really, for my head, that was really good,” she says.

Freed from such an intense schedule, for the last year and a half, she’s been taking the time to do things she could never do before. Finishing her degree in elementary education, which she began 10 years ago. Windsurfing. Climbing. Spending the summer on the beach in Italy. Sleeping in.

The choice has affected her personal life, too, for obvious reasons; in one of the most intense partnerships in ski racing, Maze’s long-term boyfriend, Andrea Massi, has been her coach for 14 years and her main trainer for eight. “We needed that [change]. Our relationship was really on the limit all the time. It’s really strict and really strong and I could do that for a certain time, but then slowly, it was getting too heavy for me,” Maze said.

Asked if has been difficult to see her former rivals racing, her response was immediate: “No, no, no. It was so right,” she said with a smile. “It felt so right. Simply, I felt exhausted. Of course the hardest part is to lose your team—to lose those people that are with you every day. It’s not just one person, it was five people with you for the last two years. That was the hardest part.

“I don’t miss racing; I didn’t miss fighting. I didn’t miss that at all. But this energy that was created between us, it was something so beautiful and so powerful… It was really hard to let it go. I miss it from that point of view. We are like a high school traveling the world; you know when you go out of high school, it feels weird,” she said, laughing.

What about the competitiveness? The adrenaline rush?

Maze immediately shook her head. “I hate that, actually. [I had to be like] that, because otherwise I wouldn’t be successful. But I hate that part. I don’t like to be a warrior or competitor; it’s so unnatural for me.” But, she said, the sport changed made into a fighter, even with its physical aspects. “Hitting the gates every day is kind of shocking for your body,” she said. Laughing, she began to punch me—not violently, but not too softly, either—on one shoulder with her fist. “When you ski you have [a gate] fixed there and you have to hit that thing. Imagine, you know? One will hit you every second. For 14 years, ever day, boom, UGH, UGH! [It’s like], leave me alone!”

But you don’t get to Maze’s level without a seriously competitive streak. One of her childhood coaches once told me an anecdote about a time Maze went bowling with friends: She treated winning or losing like an Olympic-level competition, he’d said, smiling.

“I am competitive. Maybe you’re right,” she said slowly. “But as you get older, you kind of lose that. I think being competitive is really [an aspect of being a] child. It’s really healthy, I would say. But for me, as a woman, I was losing that year by year. I’m getting more—easy… Different age, different views. I don’t feel that need any more. I feel the need for other things now.”

She may be out of the racecourse, but Maze isn’t exactly stopping. At some point, with her degree in hand, she may pursue becoming a teacher, she said (“I adore kids”), though probably not in the next few years. For now, she’s traveling to the races as a sport commentator with Eurosport, continuing her brand partnerships with Milka and Fila, and acting as an ambassador for the Slovenian tourism board. (Moving around is the norm for her: “Since I was 14, I was traveling the world all the time. I feel at home in hotels,” she said. “I tried last year to stay at home, but it’s so hard for me; I need this freedom. Every Monday, I was moving to other places—it stays in my head.”) She published a children’s book about her early years in Slovenian last year, with the story and illustrations drawn directly from her life (there’s one particularly charming drawing of her on her first podium at five, her medal around her neck). She’s working on a book about her rise in the World Cup.

And while she says she’s half-joking, she’d also love for someone to make a documentary on the story of her rise and, in particularly, of the Team to aMaze, the independent team she set up with Massi after breaking from the Slovenian team in 2008: “It’s so inspiring for me, my country, and not just for my country, but for every athlete in the world. Every person that hates the system, which is not the way he wants to be, and he’s all by himself… and then you have to do it [your way] and then prove it, that you were right. That’s the hardest part, and we made it happen… Thats so powerful for me and all the people that were following me and, simply, I believe that it’s a great story for a film,” she said, laughing.

Even if she’s not hitting gates anymore, whether with Eurosport or in another way, she plans to stay part of the racing world as long as she can.

“I need that,” she said. “I simply need to stay in this sport which I grew up in.”