Maze wins in front of home crowd

Updated: January 22, 2005, 1:41 PM ET

MARIBOR, Slovenia -- Two sleeping giants of women's skiing made timely returns to form on Saturday. Italy's Karen Putzer and Germany's Martina Ertl claimed podium positions in a World Cup giant slalom just a week before the start of the world championships.

Slovenian's 21-year-old Tina Maze delighted her home crowd with victory on the Pohorje course -- her third win in giant this season confirming her rising status in the sport.

But next to her on the podium were two skiers with track records that stretch back to long before Maze came on the scene and their performances suggest that the new generation of technical skiers could face a strong challenge from the old guard in Bormio and Santa Caterina next week.

The 26-year-old Putzer had not been on a podium since winning at Lillehammer in March 2003 after missing most of last season due to a recurring hip injury.

The last time that the 31-year-old Ertl made the top three in giant slalom was in Soelden in October 2003, although she showed she was getting close to her best again with a podium finish in super-G in Cortina earlier this month.

Putzer, with seven career World Cup wins, has considered this campaign a transitional season after her fitness problems but says she now feels well ahead of schedule.

"I thought I was still far away from being back in the top five," she said after the race in Slovenia. "I knew I could do it but I really didn't expect it to come so soon".

The Italian has admitted to feeling the pressure of expectation from her team but said she found the right mood via an unexpected source on Saturday.

"I slipped and fell on some ice while I was going up to start the warm-up and I thought after that -- well, if I can manage to stay on both my feet today it will be a miracle," she said.

"It meant I lost my nerves though and I am really happy now. It was the first time for ages that I was able to go into a race without asking myself any questions and it made a real difference for me.

"It's a huge surprise to be on the podium even though I have always believed that I could do it again. Up until now I have produced a few good runs but I've never been able to put two together on the same day and get the result."

Putzer is not getting carried away about the impact her second place could have on the world championships, which start next Saturday.

"I've had a hard season coming back from injuries and there have been a lot of ups and downs but now I am happy with this and I have to take it on from here," she said.

Ertl, who has 14 World Cup wins in her career and has been a medallist in the last three Olympic Games, was visibly relieved to have ended her barren run, screaming with delight in the finish area.

"I don't really know how significant it is that I am back but I am back," she said with a grin. "I felt good in the warm-up and I thought I could really show I can still do it.

"I am getting older and I didn't want to end my career in the World Cup with bad results and it is nice to prove I am still able," said Ertl who is widely expected to retire after the Winter Games in Turin next year.

"Every time I am on the podium it shows I am still among the best and after this I am really going to give it a go," she added.