Lindsey Vonn claims downhill victory
CORTINA D'AMPEZZO, Italy -- Lindsey Vonn is back at full speed.
Vonn won a World Cup downhill Saturday for her first victory in more than five weeks, beating overall leader Tina Maze by nearly half a second.
And most importantly, she's back to being fully healthy after a nasty bacterial problem that ate away the muscles in her powerful legs and sapped her energy the last few months.
"I'm excited to be racing and I have that fire again and I trust that my body is strong enough to ski the way I want to ski," Vonn said. "It wasn't always the case in all the races this year. I'm back to my old self and it's a good feeling."
Vonn clocked 1 minute, 38.25 seconds down the sun-drenched Olympia delle Tofane course. Maze finished second, 0.43 seconds behind, and Vonn's American teammate Leanne Smith was third, 0.89 back.
After failing to finish two consecutive races in France in mid-December -- including an uncharacteristic fall in downhill, the discipline she's Olympic champion in -- Vonn left the circuit for 27 days and missed six races. Having been hospitalized with an intestinal illness in November, she wondered whether she would win again this season.
"When I decided to take the break, I was so weak," said Vonn, adding that doctors never figured out exactly what type of bacterial problem she had. "I didn't know if I was going to be able to build enough strength back up in that short time to be able to race. My legs were skinny, I lost all my muscle, I had no endurance. I really was struggling physically to be where I was before."
Vonn didn't touch her skis during her time off in the United States.
"I was off snow completely," she said. "I was just in the gym working out two to three times a day, doing a lot of endurance training, a lot of weight training -- just really trying to get back to where I was in the fall, before I got sick."
In her first races back last weekend in St. Anton, Austria, Vonn finished sixth and fourth in a downhill and super-G, respectively.
This time, there was no stopping her.
Vonn made a slight error midway down and nearly touched her right hip to the snow. But she had the strength to regain her balance and keep charging.
"I finally feel like myself again," said Vonn, who was already celebrating and smiling before the came to a stop in the finish. "I feel healthy, finally, and I'm able to ski the way I want to. It's good to be back on top."
The race was held in perfect conditions, with temperatures well below the freezing mark making for hard snow, and clear skies allowing fans to marvel at the jagged snow-dusted peaks, which are some of the most spectacular in the Dolomite Range.
Vonn earned her seventh win in Cortina and the 58th of her career, moving within four of the all-time record held by Austrian legend Annemarie Moser-Proell.
"St. Anton was a good performance, but definitely not my best," Vonn said. "Cortina is a place where I've had a lot of success, so I knew what I needed to do and I was finally able to put all of the pieces together."
Vonn's last win was a super-G on Dec. 8 in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
For Maze, it was her first podium of the season in downhill -- having already registered wins in three other disciplines.
"I feel like I can be on the podium in every event," the Slovenian said.
Maze extended her massive lead in the overall standings to 670 points ahead of Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, who lost control toward the end of her run and did not finish.
It was the second podium of Smith's career, having finished second in a downhill in Val d'Isere, France, last month.
"I just wanted to be smooth today," said Smith, who blew her knee out on this course four years ago. "I felt like I over-edged a little bit in training yesterday because the snow feels so good. It's really important in downhill to be smooth and consistent and barely edge your way down the course."
With Alice McKennis having won in St. Anton last weekend and Stacey Cook finishing second to Vonn twice in Lake Louise, Alberta, at the start of the season, it's the first time four different American women have reached the podium in downhill in a single campaign.
Vonn leads the downhill standings 129 points ahead of Cook, McKennis is fourth, Smith sixth, Mancuso 11th and Laurenne Ross -- who also has podium potential -- 21st.
"It's fun to be on the podium with your teammates," Vonn said. "Everyone is feeding off each other. We have a great energy about the team right now."
Racing continues in Cortina on Sunday with a super-G, a race Vonn has won the last three years.
"Right now I'm just trying to focus on one race at a time," Vonn said when asked if she could reach Moser-Proell this season. "It's definitely possible if I continue to ski like I did today."