ASPEN - Immediately after crossing the finish line, Lindsey Vonn collapsed to the snow in complete exhaustion.
Her stamina gone, Vonn simply couldn't make up ground on winner Tina Maze of Slovenia in a World Cup giant slalom race Saturday. Vonn finished 21st in her return after missing time with an intestinal illness.
Then again, given the way Maze has been racing of late, no one was going to catch her. She used a blazing final run to finish in a combined time of 1 minute, 59.39 seconds to hold off Kathrin Zettel of Austria by nearly a second. Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany was third.
The 29-year-old Maze also won the season-opening GS race in Soelden, Austria, last month, with Zettel taking second there, too.
"I feel like people are watching me now, more than before," said Maze, who did a cartwheel after the win. "I'd like it to continue this way."
All eyes were on Vonn, too, just to see how she performed after a bad stomach bug recently landed her in the hospital.
Vonn was 10th after the first run, but didn't have anything left in the tank for the second pass through the challenging course. The more the four-time overall champion tried to attack the hill, the more snow she sent flying in every direction and the more speed she lost.
"I didn't have the energy I needed to really be competitive," said Vonn, who earned her first World Cup points of the season. "It's been a real fight to even be able to race today. I didn't have it.
"I'm a competitor. This isn't exactly the kind of result I was hoping for. But I have to still keep things in perspective and realize that I was very sick just a few days ago. I'm just happy to be racing again."
Her strength has been completely wiped out by the virus, which is finally responding to antibiotics. Until Saturday, she hadn't made it through a full GS run since the bug hit without pulling off to the side out of breath.
This definitely helps with her confidence.
"Eventually, on a course like this, it's all going to catch up with you," said Vonn, who will skip the slalom Sunday to conserve energy. "Your whole body is going to shut down at some point. I just have to stay positive and keep building."
Maze is showing just how determined she is to take Vonn's overall title. She switched ski technicians before the season and they've instantly been in tune. Maze also finished fourth in a slalom race in Levi, Finland, two weeks ago.
"It's natural, the way I'm skiing," she said. "Everything is under control. I don't risk too much."
Although Maze finished runner-up to Vonn in the overall standings last season, she still thought of it as a "hard" year.
"It was not a perfect season for me," Maze said. "Even though I was second in the end, I had many troubles and many mistakes. I wasn't happy at all. It was tough. I didn't win any races last year."
She might not have ended up No. 1 on the slopes last season, but Maze has recently occupied the top spot on the musical charts in Slovenia.
She sang on a music video entitled, "My way is my decision," a catchy pop tune. The music video has already generated nearly 800,000 hits on Youtube.
Maze also plays a pretty mean air guitar in the video with her skis.
A budding singer?
"I'm a skier. I don't want to be a singer," Maze said. "But I do like to have fun besides skiing. It was fun to make the video. I'm proud of this."
Teenager Mikaela Shiffrin had the best finish for the Americans as she wound up in ninth place. The 17-year-old was actually on the final step of the podium for quite a while, before finally being bumped off.
"That's a big breakthrough," Shiffrin said.
Julia Mancuso couldn't agree more - for not only Shiffrin, but the rest of the young U.S. skiers.
"Sometimes, it can be daunting with people like me and Lindsey doing well," said Mancuso, who finished 15th. "It's good to show the rest of the team that you just have to go for it. Don't set sights too low because me and Lindsey are both beatable by the young ones - just like today."
The day didn't go quite as well for Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany. She caught an edge that knocked her off balance and straight toward a gate. Just before crashing into the obstacle, she stuck up her left arm, saving her face but bruising her arm.
"It hurts pretty bad," said Hoefl-Riesch, whose day was done but still - arm willing, of course - plans to ski in the slalom race. "I'm really disappointed because I had good training the last two weeks. I was really fast in the training. Obviously, I can't bring it down in the race. It's really sad."