MIAMI (Reuters) - American Lindsey Vonn has dominated women’s Alpine skiing over the past three seasons but is well aware that World Cup form often counts for little in the Olympics.
Since her first win, in downhill at Lake Louise in December, 2004, Vonn has amassed 31 triumphs on the World Cup circuit — nine of those coming this season and the last six coming in January as she hit blistering form in time for Vancouver.
She seems, in downhill in particular, to be almost untouchable but the past is full of racers who arrived at the Olympics as the undisputed number one and then failed to get the gold they craved.
Perhaps that is why Vonn, who is enjoying unprecedented media exposure in the U.S. for a female skier, has chosen modest public goals for the Games.
“Going into any Olympics, there’s going to be people who are kind of looked at as people who are going to get medals. I don’t know if I’m one of them but my goal is to win one medal and it doesn’t matter what color,” said the 25-year-old American who has been to two previous Olympics but never finished higher than sixth.
“The Olympics are why I got into the sport,” said Vonn, who was not at her best in Turin after a bad training crash. “It’s what motivates little kids. It’s that dream that everyone strives for and that’s definitely what I’m going for this year.”
Although downhill and super-G are Vonn’s evident strengths — she is world champion in both and wrapped up this season’s super-G World Cup title at the weekend — she has won in slalom and combined too and it is only in giant slalom that she has yet to taste victory.
She faces serious competition in a strong women’s field.
Vonn’s closest challenger for this year’s overall title in the World Cup is the tall German Maria Riesch, arguably even more of an all-rounder.
Riesch had been playing second fiddle to Vonn in the speed events but hit peak form just at the right time to beat the American in St Moritz on Saturday and win her first downhill in more than three years.
Riesch, who has recovered from serious injuries which hampered her early career progress and cost her a place in Turin, is the world champion in slalom, her top event, but has finished on the podium in five out of six downhills this season.
Riesch and Vonn are good friends and annually spend Christmas Eve together at the German’s home and it would be no surprise to see them hugging on the podium in Whistler.
Alpine skiing, though, would not be Alpine skiing without the looming presence of an Austrian contender.
Kathrin Zettel, the 23-year-old super-combined world champion, has hit her stride at just the right moment with wins in giant slalom and slalom in Maribor, Slovenia, last month.
A remarkably consistent performer, Zettel has failed only once to make the podium in six slalom races this season.
Sweden’s Anja Paerson, who in Turin four years ago won gold in slalom and bronze in downhill and combined, has struggled for success in the past two seasons but returned to form with a win in the St Moritz super-combined event last Friday.
Other names to watch out for include Slovenia’s Tina Maze, Germany’s Kathrin Hoelzl, Finland’s Tanja Poutiainen and France’s Sandrine Aubert while it would be unwise to rule out regular challengers such as Italian Manuela Moelgg, Sarka Zahrobska of the Czech Republic and Marlies Schild of Austria.
Switzerland’s hopes have been hit by injury, with 2006 downhill silver medalist Martina Schild joining Lara Gut and Fraenzi Aufdenblatten on the absentee list.
Editing by Clare Fallon