par Manuele Lang
SOELDEN, Austria, Oct 26 (Reuters) - Swiss Lara Gut, once the young sensation of world skiing, made a winning start to the Olympic season with victory in the giant slalom at Soelden on Saturday.
It was her fourth World Cup victory, ahead of two of the world's best giant slalom specialists, Austrian Kathrin Zettel and Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany.
An independent spirit has been the key to success for the 22-year-old, born in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, who said her mixed culture had nurtured her originality and turned her into one of the most gifted women on the ski circuit.
"In Ticino we combine the best of Italy and Switzerland but also the worst of both sides. We have a rebellious mind," she said after becoming the first Swiss woman crowned on the Austrian glacier.
As a result, Gut always had a foot in each camp. That is her own training structure, led by her father Pauli, and the Swiss team.
When she made her swashbuckling debut in the top-flight by winning two medals at the 2009 world championships at the age of 17, her position was a rather awkward one.
"I had the impression I was fighting against the rest of the world. Now I'm fighting for myself," she said.
A good deal of Saturday's victory is down to new Swiss team chief Hans Flatcher.
The husband of former giant slalom great Sonja Nef, Flatcher has the experience of managing a strong-willed woman skier and allowed Gut to have her way in the national squad.
"It works out fine because I can be part of the team when I need to and yet respect my own programme with my own structure," she said.
Like overall World Cup holder Tina Maze of Slovenia - a disappointing 18th in Soelden - or other skiing mavericks like Bruno Girardelli or Alberto Tomba in the past, Gut has opted for individualism rather than team spirit.
This is a choice that goes right back to when her father, himself a former skier, first put her on skis at the age of four.
"It's indispensible for me to have my own structure. It's a way to pick what's best for me, to follow my own pace and once again, I can't thank my father enough for turning me into the skier I am.
"But now I can do it without any tension or aggression with the rest of the team," she said.
The youngest ever winner of a World Cup Super-G in St Moritz in 2009, Gut has had time to mature and mellow from the sometimes arrogant teenager of her debut.
She missed the entire 2010 season due to a hip injury and took several seasons to rebuild after missing the Vancouver Olympics.
"Everything happened too fast for me, I came the first year on the World Cup and I won, I got sick, and injured. Now I'm finally back to what I can do."
As a result, the Sochi Games in February will be her first Olympic experience, while her all-round qualities - she has now won in three World Cup disciplines - could make her a serious contender for the season's honours.
"Of course the Olympics will be an exciting experience. But for the time being I want to focus on my training programme before my next race in America. I want to take it step by step."
(Editing by Rex Gowar)