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Dominique Gisin: Fighter pilot who pursued her golden dream

By Paul Gittings, CNN
updated 6:06 AM EST, Tue December 9, 2014
She loves skiing with all her heart, but Switzerland's Dominique Gisin's career might have taken a very different trajectory. She loves skiing with all her heart, but Switzerland's Dominique Gisin's career might have taken a very different trajectory.
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Fighting her way to victory
Fighting her way to victory
Fighting her way to victory
Fighting her way to victory
Fighting her way to victory
Fighting her way to victory
Fighting her way to victory
Fighting her way to victory
Fighting her way to victory
Fighting her way to victory
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dominique Gisin won gold at the Sochi Winter Games
  • Tied for first prize with Tina Maze in women's downhill
  • Originally trained as fighter pilot in Swiss Air Force
  • Has battled a series of crippling knee injuries in her skiing career

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(CNN) -- Champion skier or female fighter pilot? Whether to hurtle down the slopes at breakneck speed or defy G-force in the cockpit of a jet plane.

The need for speed is the common theme, but it was an unusual and certainly unique career choice that faced Switzerland's Olympic downhill gold medalist Dominique Gisin.

Even as an up and coming star on the junior circuit, Gisin was plagued by persistent knee injuries and fearing for her future in the sport, turned to her second passion, flying, to make a living.

She had learned to fly as a teenager and after opting for pilot training in the Swiss military was one of the star recruits.

Showing the sort of determination that was to see her reach the heights of the sporting world, Gisin may well have become the first woman to pilot fighter jets for the country's air force.

Fate then played its part and, ironically as a result of her skiing injuries, the officers in charge of the flying program decided Gisin's fragile knees would not stand the rigors of full-time military service.

"It was a risk so the decision was partly taken away from me," Gisin told CNN's Alpine Edge program.

"But I never regretted. I mean I love skiing with all my heart. And although I love flying, skiing was my childhood dream.

"And all the other people that were still in the selection back then, their sole dream was to fly. I think it was a fair decision."

The choice of skiing looked to be validated by her first World Cup podium in early 2007, but Gisin's injury problems continued and after a fall in downhill training she was sidelined yet again through a knee problem.

Indeed during the course of her 15-year skiing career, the 28-year-old has had no less than nine operations.

"After every injury you lie in hospital and you're like 'I'm not going to do this again, for sure.' But then you set little goals," she recalls.

"The goal that you can walk again, then that you can train again. And then that you can ski again. And then you're back on snow and it's just the most beautiful thing."

Showing that trademark determination, she rebounded with her first victory on the circuit, tying for first place in a downhill at Altenmarkt with Sweden's Anja Paerson in January 2009.

Read: Paerson and Gisin share downhill honors

The shared victory was to set the precedent for Gisin's ultimate triumph, topping the podium in the Sochi Winter Olympics earlier this year.

Without a win at the highest level since winning her third World Cup race in 2010, Gisin had gone into the Games with slender hopes of victory.

But she had the perfect run down the treacherous Rosa Khutor piste and set a time of one minute 41.57 seconds which a host of top contenders could not match.

Until Slovenia's 30-year-old Tina Maze -- a close friend of Gisin's -- did exactly that, posting precisely the same time down to a hundredth of a second.

It was the first time in Olympic skiing history that a gold medal had to be shared.

"We're close; even closer now," Gisin joked after their joint triumph.

The Swiss ski team's secret hideaway
Maze on historic win, music career
The harmonious U.S. ski team

Read: Maze and Gisin make Olympic history

Victory was greeting with acclaim in skiing mad Switzerland, elevating Gisin to superstar status and putting paid to any doubts she may have had about her chosen career path.

Gisin still finds time to keep her license as a pilot -- getting about 25 hours of flying in her log during the off season.

She feels the experiences of her twin passions have a similarity that helps her concentration for the task in hand.

"I think the freedom and the peace when you're up in the air and when you're on a (racing) course is quite similar. You focus on this very moment and that's a beautiful thing," she said.

Despite reaching the pinnacle of achievement with her gold medal, Gisin has no intention of retiring just yet and is focusing on the world championships in Vail early next year for another taste of global glory.

"I mean in the speed disciplines it's all about my head. If I can find the courage, if I can find the energy to race like I did in Sochi, a lot of things are possible," she insists.

She is also a supportive figure to her 20-year-old sister Michelle, who is beginning to make a name for herself on the women's World Cup circuit, claiming 16th in the slalom in Aspen recently.

Her 26-year-old brother Marc has also represented Switzerland on the World Cup circuit, but like his older sister has suffered a serious knee injury, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a fall in 2012.

But showing the battling spirit which is clearly a family trait he has returned to the circuit to pursue his promising career.

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