SOELDEN, Austria -- Lara Gut's start to the Olympic season couldn't have been more different from the one she had four years ago.
Gut convincingly won the season-opening women's World Cup giant slalom Saturday for her fourth career victory -- but first in the discipline -- with a dominant performance that sent a message to her rivals less than four months ahead of the Sochi Olympics. It was a sharp contrast to September 2009, when the Swiss skier dislocated her hip in GS training and missed the entire season -- including the Vancouver Games.
"This is sensational," said Gut, who became the first Swiss female to win a GS since Sonja Nef placed first in Santa Caterina, Italy, in January 2003.
"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."
Watched by 11,000 visitors in warm and sunny conditions, Gut led the field by 0.77 after the opening run before finishing in an aggregate 2 minutes, 25.16 seconds. Kathrin Zettel of Austria came 0.84 back in second and Olympic champion Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany took third, 1.28 off the lead.
The favourites struggled as overall World Cup champion Tina Maze of Slovenia was 3.05 behind in 18th, and world GS champion Tessa Worley of France trailed Gut by 3.31 in 21st.
Four-time overall champion Lindsey Vonn skipped the race and plans to start her season next month after recovering from knee surgery, while American teammate Mikaela Shiffrin, who won the slalom title last season, came 1.62 behind in sixth for her career-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," Shiffrin said. "It's cool to see the other girls out here and who has improved. I think today was a pretty good day."
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 new coach 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 said she was surprised by her dominant performance as the conditions didn't really 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," her coach Andrea Massi said. "She didn't get one turn right."
Julia Mancuso, the 2006 Olympic champion in the discipline, was another big name struggling. She 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."
Former overall champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch lost balance in a right turn early in her opening run and went off course.
The German, who finished runner-up to Maze in the overall standings last season, said she didn't want to put much weight on the first race of the season.
"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."
According to Hoefl-Riesch, Gut was the only racer who didn't hold back.
"As it's the first race, many skiers were too cautious. Lara Gut didn't do that, she raced like in training last week," said Hoefl-Riesch, who is yet to win a GS in her career. "I thought (Maze) would be very strong again. Last season she was incredibly dominant. It's good for me to see that she is beatable again."