When Lara Gut starts the defense of her overall Alpine World Cup title on Saturday, she will be the first Swiss skier to do so in more than two decades.
Not that it puts pressure on her.
“I don’t think I have to defend something,” Gut said on Thursday, two days before the season-opening giant slalom on the Rettenbach glacier.
“The title that I won, is last year. Now we all start at zero points again and it’s just a matter of winning races again.”
The previous skier from Switzerland to take the biggest prize in women’s skiing was Vreni Schneider in 1995, successfully defending her title from the previous season.
Gut downplayed the importance of the first race.
“My goal is to improve every day, I have to try to be as relaxed as possible,” Gut said. “There is always a lot of talk ahead of Soelden but this race is also worth just 100 points.”
She will be the only racer on Saturday who has won an overall title. Anna Veith, Tina Maze and Lindsey Vonn are all absent, for various reasons.
Gut’s predecessor in 2014 and 2015, Veith, needs more time to recover from the knee injury that kept the Austrian away from the slopes last season.
Known under her maiden name Fenninger until she got married in April, Veith returned on skis in June but has still been lacking muscle power for the World Cup.
“I felt that I don’t have enough strength to put enough pressure on the skis,” said Veith, adding she would spend next month mainly in the gym before returning to skiing in December.
The 2013 champion also won’t be a threat to Gut’s ambition as Tina Maze announced her retirement on Thursday. The Slovenian took a break from racing last season and said she will do only one last race — on home soil in Maribor — before quitting the sport.
So, will Vonn again become Gut’s main challenger?
The American, hunting her fifth overall title but first since 2012, was in a neck-and-neck race with Gut until damaging her left knee in a super-G crash in February, ending her season.
Though fit and ready to race, Vonn declined the trip to the Austrian Alps as she planned to concentrate more on speed races and refrain from GS, like she also dropped the slalom from her schedule years ago.
“I’ll be back on skis soon and training here at home,” Vonn wrote on Facebook recently. “I’m disappointed I won’t be there (in Soelden) but my goals for this season are focused more on downhill and super-g races.”
However, Gut might face fierce competition from Vonn’s American teammate, Mikaela Shiffrin, who agreed.
“It’s the first season that I think it’s really possible,” said Shiffrin, who has dominated slaloms in recent years and vastly improved in GS. Now she will add more speed events, not just super-G but even some downhills.
“We have to wait to get a good grasp where I stand,” Shiffrin said. “If I am skiing well in slalom and GS and have some good results in speed, it looks like I am a good contender.”
Calling it “a huge dream,” Shiffrin was quick to acknowledge many rivals have the same ambition.
“I want to keep everything in perspective,” she said. “There are a lot of girls that have that dream. There are probably 20 racers out there who have the potential to win the overall globe.”