ASPEN, Colorado — Eva-Maria Brem buried her face in the snow soon after crossing the finish line, the emotions from the last year all hitting her at once.
Being left off the Austrian team for the Sochi Games. Almost quitting the sport she took up as a toddler on pink skis with snowmen decals. Deciding she still loved skiing and couldn't walk away because there was still too much out there to accomplish.
The 26-year-old Brem raced to her first World Cup victory Saturday, holding off teammate Kathrin Zettel with a smooth final run in the giant slalom.
Brem had a big lead following a nearly flawless first run and tactically charged the tricky course to finish in 2 minutes, 5.97 seconds. Zettel was second, 0.59 seconds behind, for her ninth podium finish in Aspen. Federica Brignone of Italy was third.
When Brem finished and saw her name on top of the scoreboard the tears began to flow. When she lifted her head up from the snow — some still sticking to her nose and goggles — Zettel greeted her with a hug.
"I know she had a really hard time and has worked so long for this victory," said Zettel, who's quickly rounding back into top form after offseason hip surgery. "She's skiing so well."
American Mikaela Shiffrin held the lead for a little while after a fast final run before winding up sixth. The teenager has been dealing with a stomach virus most of the week.
Shiffrin and Anna Fenninger of Austria tied in the season-opening GS race last month in Soelden, Austria, and Brem was third.
Brem also finished second in Switzerland and third in Sweden last March.
This recent surge was ignited, at least in part, by not making the Sochi squad. Soon after, Brem did some soul-searching and made some changes.
"I do it my way," Brem said.
Brem's way is attacking a course with almost a carefree attitude, not stressing over everything. It worked as she earned her first career podium finish in Sweden on March 6.
"A magic moment for me," she said. "I realized that maybe I can really do this."
Nina Loeseth of Norway was the seventh skier out of the starting gate for the final run and found the ideal line, generating speed on the bottom of the course where others couldn't. Loeseth was on top until Shiffrin came along as the 19-year-old gave a fist pump to the partisan crowd after taking the lead.
It wouldn't hold. Especially not after her first run, when she hit her hip on the snow. She recovered, but was 2.23 seconds behind.
"I felt like I did a good job of attacking in the second run and keeping it clean," Shiffrin said. "That's a step in the right direction."
Zettel had a so-so opening run, too, but was speedy on her final pass to jump on top. Not surprising, since she's made herself right at home on this hill. So much so that someone joked that Aspen should be called "Zettel's Course."
Brignone — the second-to-last skier — couldn't catch Zettel's time. Brem wasn't nervous in the starting gate, just determined.
She wasn't about to play it safe.
"I tried to push the second run, because I thought if I don't win this now, I will never get over it," Brem said.
There were quite a few big names skidding out in the morning session, including Tessa Worley of France and Julia Mancuso of Squaw Valley, California.
Now, Mancuso's off to Lake Louise, Alberta, for the speed events next weekend. That's also where Lindsey Vonn is scheduled to make her season debut in her return from a second knee surgery.
The last racer of the morning session may have received one of the loudest cheers. Then again, Sarah Schleper, of Vail, Colorado, has always been a fan favorite.
Schleper certainly stood out, too, maybe not so much for her time — she was 9.13 seconds out of first — but definitely for her bright pink racing suit.
The four-time Olympian has a new passport this season after retiring from the U.S. team. Schleper now competes for Mexico, where her husband is from. She's trying to stay in the game long enough to compete in her hometown of Vail at the world championships in February.
"It's hard to compete all the time against skiers who are really taking it super professional and serious," said Schleper, who balances raising two kids with working a couple of jobs and trying to squeeze in some training of her own. "But it's so fun to get into the start and get that adrenaline."
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