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U.S. skiers Miller, Vonn begin World Cup title defense this weekend

SOELDEN, Austria -- Bode Miller is thinking big.

He won the overall World Cup title last year -- as did Lindsey Vonn for a sweep by U.S. men and women -- and has his eyes on a couple of other trophies as well with a new season about to begin.

"Winning the slalom and downhill discipline titles are goals as well," he said.

The season opens Saturday with a women's giant slalom, followed by a men's GS on Sunday on the Rettenbach glacier.

Miller won for the 31st time on the World Cup circuit last season, becoming the most successful American skier by overtaking Phil Mahre.

With new coach Forest Carey, Miller wants to relive his heyday as a slalom specialist before he shifted most of his energy to the speed disciplines.

One of Miller's main competitors most likely will be Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal, his predecessor as overall champion and last year's winner of the season-opening race in Soelden.

Svindal returns Sunday after missing most of the past season because of a crash during downhill training in Beaver Creek, Colo., in November.

"That compulsory break made me realize how important this sport is to me," Svindal said. "My main goal now is to find my way back to my old form."

Didier Cuche of Switzerland and Manfred Moelgg of Italy are also seen as serious contenders. Austrian great Hermann Maier has plenty of respect for Svindal.

"I think Svindal is the strongest of all of us," said Maier, a four-time overall champion. "He is the strong favorite for Soelden as well as for the entire season."

Benjamin Raich, who beat Svindal to win the 2006 overall title and finished runner-up behind Miller last year, also calls Svindal a favorite.

"It's hard to tell, but Svindal is an ingenious racer and he is physically healthy again," Raich said.

Raich skipped training with a back injury this week but his start Sunday was not in danger, according to Austria head coach Toni Giger. Raich has won 11 giant slalom races but has never been on the podium in Soelden.

"There is no clear explanation for that. Sometimes I was too cautions, sometimes I wanted too much," Raich said. "Maybe I am lacking a bit of rhythm at the start of the season."

On the women's side, Vonn defends the first overall title for an American racer since Tamara McKinney in 1983.

"I'm ready. We had a really good training camp in New Zealand and Portillo, Chile," said Vonn, a speed specialist who has been working hard on the technical disciplines. "There's definitely going to be a lot more pressure and a lot more people expecting me to perform. I just got to stick to my own game plan."

Vonn's closest challenger again could be Nicole Hosp, the Austrian won the overall title in 2007 and finished runner-up to Vonn.

"Soelden is always a hard race, the slope is extremely difficult," Hosp said. "You need two really excellent runs to finish among the best."

Marlies Schild, who dominated the slalom discipline in recent years, was out for the season after breaking her left leg at a training run on the Rettenbach glacier this month. Her absence is likely to bring Hosp extra points in the slalom standings, but she was reluctant to call it an advantage.

"Going for the overall title is also a team sport and Marlies would have taken points away from my competitors as well," Hosp said.

Other contenders who could go all the way this season include Maria Riesch of Germany, who took third last year; Julia Mancuso of the U.S., who wants to bounce back from an injury-plagued season; and Anja Paerson of Sweden, who changed her equipment supplier in the offseason.

"I can be strong in all disciplines," Paerson said. "And I am top motivated again."

A favorite for Saturday's opener might be Denise Karbon, who won in Soelden last year for her first of five giant slalom victories.

"This is a new situation for me," the Italian said. "Last year, I started winning after a rather miserable season. Now I must defend what I've achieved."