SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — Lara Gut of Switzerland sent a message to her rivals less than four months before the Sochi Olympics.
She captured a season-opening World Cup giant slalom Saturday for her fourth career victory but first in the discipline. She is the first Swiss woman to win a giant slalom since Sonja Nef in 2003. "This is sensational," she said.
Kathrin Zettel of Austria was second and Olympic champion Viktoria Rebensburg was third. Mikaela Shiffrin of the U.S., who won the slalom title last season, was sixth for her best World Cup result in the discipline.
"I'm really happy, and happy that the race is over, that we have that under our belt," said Shiffrin, who was 1.62 seconds behind the winner. "It's cool to see the other girls out here and who has improved. I think today was a pretty good day."
Four-time overall champion Lindsey Vonn skipped the race and plans to start her season next month in a comeback from knee surgery. Gut's season opener was in sharp contrast to her one in 2009 when she dislocated her hip during giant slalom training and missed the entire season, including the Vancouver Games.
"Winning the first race of the season is amazing," Gut said. "It's great to have a GS winner in Switzerland again after all these years. ... I'll take it step by step this season and I don't think about Sochi yet."
On a warm and sunny day, Gut led the field by 0.77 seconds after the opening run before finishing with a total time of 2 minutes, 25.16 seconds. Zettel was 0.84 back and Rebensburg was 1.28 off the lead.
The favorites struggled, with overall World Cup champion Tina Maze of Slovenia 3.05 behind in 18th and world GS champion Tessa Worley of France 3.31 back in 21st. Julia Mancuso, the 2006 Olympic champion in the discipline, finished the first run in 31st but was allowed a second run after Emi Hasegawa of Japan was disqualified.
"It was just slow," Mancuso said. "The snow was good. I guess for me I wasn't in race mode. It's just a hard race." Following surgery, Gut struggled to get going again in the technical races after impressing as a 17-year-old rookie in the 2007-08 season.
"After my injury it took a lot of time to build up my GS skiing again," Gut said. "It was easier in super-G and downhill. But now I am back to what I can do in GS as well." During summer training under coach Hans Flatscher and new Swiss Ski Alpine director Rudi Huber, Gut focused on avoiding mistakes.
"The last years I was used to ski fast but I also did a lot of mistakes," she said. "So we practiced skiing clean, and that's what I did today, skiing clean but still pushing it to the limit." Gut was surprised by her performance because the conditions didn't suit her.
"There was much distance between the gates and the snow was pretty aggressive," said Gut, who has won two super-Gs and a downhill. "It's not easy to find the right mixture of skiing carefully and attacking. Usually I am not so good at it."
Maze started her record-breaking season last year with a convincing win in Soelden but never found her rhythm this time. "She didn't ski," said her coach, Andrea Massi. "She didn't get one turn right."
Former overall champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch lost her balance early in her opening run and went off course. The German, who finished runner-up to Maze in the overall standings last season, is not attaching too much significance to the first race.
"I didn't come far, but my skiing felt good," Hoefl-Riesch said. "It's better for me to take some risks than hold back and finish two, three seconds off the lead. I've watched the other girls and I am pretty sure I will be right there with the best in GS this season."