Swiss Woman Wins First Giant Slalom

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Tignes, France Nov. 1 (AP by Erica Bulman)--Switzerland's Sonja Nef overcame a fragile knee and weak nerves Saturday, winning the season's opening World Cup giant slalom for her first career triumph in the discipline.

Nef, who had built a reputation of posting brilliant opening runs then bottoming out in the second, didn't flinch Saturday. She compiled two solid performances for an aggregate time of 2 minutes, 31.39 seconds.

``The work I've been doing with my mental trainer over the past year has paid off,'' Nef said after collecting her first win since 1996. ``He helped me overcome my emotional sensibility and helped me put less pressure on myself.''

After taking a .42-second lead in the opening run, many expected Nef to crumble in the second.

But she remained relaxed, ignoring the fog and the pelting, wet snow to post the fastest second run in 1:15.55, and finish a stunning 1.61 seconds ahead of her nearest rival, Sweden's Anna Ottosson.

Ottosson, who had a two-run time of 2:33.00, was followed by Austria's Anita Wachter at 2:33.51.

World Cup overall and giant slalom champion Alexandra Meissnitzer of Austria veered off course in the opening run.

Wachter, a 16-year veteran of the women's circuit, trailed by 1.51 seconds after the first run, but had a sensational second run.

``The first run wasn't so good for me,'' said Wachter, the 1993 overall World Cup champion and winner of 18 World Cup races. ``Visibility was very poor and I was afraid to go fast.

``In the second leg I took many risks. I'd been aiming for top-five so a podium finish is a good start to my season.''

To many, Nef's victory was surprising.

Nef, who had been training alone the past three years because a weak knee prevented her from keeping up with the rest of the Swiss team, repeatedly had failed to convert a solid first run into a victory. Last year, she posted top-five finishes five times in the giant slalom, including two podium places.

``I was probably the only top skier who wasn't seeing a sports psychologist,'' said Nef, whose only other career victory was in a slalom at Sestriere, Italy, in 1996. ``I figured you don't want to be with someone who makes you start analyzing things too much.

``But for the past two years I was stuck between second and fifth place in all my races. I figured I needed to find a way to break out of my rut.''

The answer was Heinz Graf, a driving teacher from Lucerne, Switzerland, and a former sports trainer who now helps athletes deal with the stress of competition in his spare time.

Nef described herself as ``emotionally sensitive,'' and ``unable to cope with difficult situations.''

``Poor press reviews and criticism would bother me,'' said Nef, the fourth-place finisher in the World Cup giant slalom standings last year. ``I've since learned to build a wall between myself and the outside world.''

Between the two runs Saturday, Nef relaxed with teammates at a restaurant on the slopes.

``I didn't want to think about the race or the possibility of winning my first giant slalom,'' Nef said. ``That seemed to have worked.''

While Nef's nerves were tested on the slopes, many skiers had theirs challenged on the way up.

Several racers, including Ottosson, were trapped for about a half-hour in one of the gondolas on the way to the top of the course before the first run.

``It was a little scary,'' said Ottosson, who was stranded along with another dozen racers in the ski lift. ``We were all so close together in the cabin and it was taking so long.

``But the scariest thing was that we were afraid the race would start without us.''

Copyright (c) 1999 The Associated Press

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