By Manuele Lang
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado (Reuters) - Lara Gut and Mikaela Shiffrin have rejuvenated the Alpine skiing World Cup this winter and are set to make life difficult for more established rivals ahead of the Sochi Olympics.
Switzerland's Gut, 22, has won all three of her races to date this season in Soelden and Beaver Creek while U.S. skier Shiffrin, 19, won the only slalom so far in the Finnish resort of Levi.
A teenage sensation when she took two silver medals at the world championships in Val d'Isere in 2009, Gut is unbeaten in three disciplines - the giant slalom in Soelden, and both downhill and super-G in Colorado on Friday and Saturday.
Her perfect start mirrors that of Tina Maze last season, with the Slovenian going on to win the overall World Cup title and break the 2,000 points barrier for the first time.
The extrovert blonde from the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino, who speaks fluently to journalists in four languages, was reluctant to talk about herself in the same breath as past greats however.
"Yes it's cool. Three victories in three events. I don't know if there is a special meaning. I just trained so hard in the last few years. It's just working well at the moment," she said.
"If I start to think about what Tina did, or (American) Bode (Miller), who won in every discipline in a month...I think that I still have to train a lot to ski like them," she said.
Liechtenstein's Tina Weirather, 24, who came second in the first downhill of the winter on Friday, has also provided a fresh face.
Austria's Anna Fenninger, the same age as Weirather, has meanwhile become one of the most consistent skiers on the circuit with three top five places and a runner-up spot behind Gut in Saturday's Super-G.
By contrast, the women who dominated skiing in the past seasons have been struggling.
American Lindsey Vonn, starting anew after tearing knee ligaments at the world championships in Schladming in February, again hurt her knee in training last week and is not scheduled back in action before Lake Louise next weekend at best.
Defending overall champion Maze, who set a record of 2,414 World Cup points last winter, was third in Levi but has not finished higher than 14th in her three other races so far.
Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch, despite a good runner-up place in Levi, is also far from her best.
The up-and-coming generation are not going to make it easy for their elders to claim their places back.
Both Gut and Weirather were precocious talents whose progression was held up by serious injuries and they are now making up for that lost time.
The Swiss was sidelined for a year with a hip injury after becoming the youngest ever winner of a World Cup Super-G in St Moritz in 2009.
Weirather was forced out of skiing between January 2010 and October 2011 after a bad crash in Cortina d'Ampezzo.
They have no time to waste while Shiffrin is already a step ahead, having become slalom world champion at 18 years old last winter by dethroning Austria's Marlies Schild - another star on the wane.
There has always been young talent at the top in skiing, with Canada's Betsy Clifford and France's Marielle Goitschel becoming world champions at 16 while Austria's Anne-Marie Moser-Proell, still the most successful woman skier ever, won the overall World Cup at 18.
Yet careers were much shorter in the 1960s or 1970s when the sport was still amateur and the very best skiers of the era, like Austrian Toni Sailer or Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy retired at the age of 22 or 24.
With careers stretching past 30, and sometimes nearer 40, many believe skiing has become much more competitive with youthful feats more exceptional than before.
Another element favoring the young generation is that they have grown up with parabolic skis, first introduced into the World Cup in 1999 when Maze made her debut.
There was a hint that experience might still pay out in Beaver Creek when former downhill and Super-G world champion Liz Goergl of Austria initially came second behind Gut. She was later disqualified.
(Reporting by Patrick Lang and Manuele Lang, editing by Alan Baldwin)