Lara Gut takes first World Cup downhill of season
BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) -- Lara Gut was faster than a field missing Lindsey Vonn.
Quick in training all week, the Swiss star carried it over to race day. Gut breezed to her second World Cup win of the season, taking the season-opening downhill Friday by holding off Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein by 0.47 seconds.
Meanwhile, down the road a few miles in Vail, Vonn was squeezing in some early morning training runs to try and get her surgically repaired right knee back up to speed after a recent training mishap. Vonn got stronger with each of the three runs she took.
On this day, though, it's hard to imagine that any skier could've stayed with Gut, especially on a new Beaver Creek course she's figured out better than anyone.
Still, the stage is being set for an entertaining showdown at the Sochi Games between Gut and Vonn - provided, of course, that Vonn can get healthy.
This is a race that didn't happen four years ago in Vancouver. Gut dislocated her hip during giant slalom training in September 2009 and missed the entire season, including the Winter Games. Vonn went on to win the Olympic downhill title.
"I've been working so hard to be back," the 22-year-old Gut said. "I had to build everything again, my body, my skiing skills, my feeling on the snow. I think right now, just everything is paying off."
Vonn is hoping that her knee will hold up to the rigors of training and that she will indeed be ready for Sochi in February.
As Gut and the field warmed up for their race, Vonn was taking some super-G runs in her hometown of Vail. Nothing too extreme, nothing too radical, just a few trips down the slope to test out her knee.
"It's looking a lot better than everyone expected," Vonn said of her recovery. "Things are going well."
Vonn didn't attend the race at Beaver Creek because she said watching would be "too hard on me."
She missed quite a performance by Gut.
Then again, Gut likes a downhill course icy and extreme, with just a touch of technical elements along the way.
No wonder she felt so comfortable on the new "Raptor" track, finding speed in steep spots where others tapped the brakes. She was nearly flawless along the challenging course, finishing in 1 minute, 41.26 seconds.
Weirather made a few mistakes or else she believes she possibly could've won this race, while Elena Fanchini of Italy finished third.
"I think if I took as much risk as I could, then I could probably beat her," Weirather said. "But it's the wrong course to risk that much, because you can do many stupid things. I was trying to find the balance between attacking and still holding the line."
Gut certainly mastered that. She had the fastest time in two of three training sessions this week on the course built for the 2015 world championships. This difficult hill almost felt custom made for her.
"I like the snow. I like the slope, because you just have to fight," said Gut, who also captured a giant slalom race in Soelden, Austria, in October. "I'm in good shape right now. Everything is going well."
The Americans didn't have an ideal day on their home hill, with Stacey Cook turning in the best finish at 19th place, 2.23 seconds behind Gut. Julia Mancuso wound up 20th.
"We really wanted to represent our team well to the home crowd," Cook said. "I don't think that happened today."
Then again, they were missing one of their biggest stars.
Vonn was originally planning a return for this race after tearing ligaments in her knee during an accident at the world championships in February. She was on target, too, before her crash during training last week at the speed center in Copper Mountain.
Vonn remains hopeful of a return next week in Lake Louise, Alberta.
"I'm taking it day by day. I'm not pushing it that hard yet," Vonn said.
Much like Vonn, everything Gut does these days is with Sochi in mind. She's looking forward to seeing what she can finally accomplish in the Olympics when healthy.
Asked if it mattered that Vonn wasn't in the race on Friday, Gut said: "It's not like a tennis match where two people are playing against (each other).
"Here, we're 60 in the gate. If Lindsey is not here, we're 59. She's a really a strong skier, but World Cup is not just about Lindsey."
Gut was adamant a win is a win even without Vonn's presence.
Case in point, according to Gut: She captured two silver medals at the 2009 world championships in Val d'Isere, France, about seven months before the crash in which she hurt her hip. Gut was skiing well and, if healthy, might have been a factor when Vonn won her Olympic downhill in Vancouver.
"Nobody asked Lindsey if it was different that I wasn't at the Olympics," Gut said, smiling. "If you win, nobody cares who was there and who was not."
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