St. Anton, Austria Feb. 2, 2001 (AP by Nesha Starcevic)--Kirsten Clark of the United States led after the downhill leg of the women's combined event at the world championship Friday, with favorite Janica Kostelic in good position to grab the gold medal after the two slalom runs.
In the final practice for the men's downhill, Daron Rahlves of the United States, the super-G gold medalist, led Austrian superstar and defending champion Hermann Maier.
Kostelic, the 19-year-old Croatian sensation, was only 1.24 seconds behind big rival Renate Goetschl of Austria.
Goetschl is much better in the downhill than in the slalom and Kostelic appears sure to erase the deficit.
The winner is determined by adding the downhill times to the two slalom heats, to be held in the evening. Kostelic has swept all seven slalom races and has won the only previous combined event this season.
``If I am more than 2.5 seconds behind, I'm done,'' Kostelic said before Goetschl's run.
Kostelic had a mild thigh strain after fighting to remain on her skis during Thursday's practice.
``It was OK, much better than in training. I was a bit scared after yesterday,'' said Kostelic, who shattered her knee ligaments in December 1999. She was 13th in the downhill.
``My knee is not the problem, it's just my leg that was hurting a bit,'' she said.
Clark beat Goetschl in the downhill but the American has not scored any points in the gate races this season and is unlikely to challenge for the medals.
Another medal prospect, Caroline Lalive of the United States, was 1:55 seconds behind Goetschl and still in contention after finishing 16th.
Lalive lost her balance in a long curve where she crashed during the opening super-G race. She touched the snow with her hand but regained her balance, only to go wide in another bend. Still, her time was good enough to retain her hopes of gaining a medal.
``I just couldn't hold my line, I don't know what happened, maybe it was a lapse in concentration,'' said Lalive, who had the fastest time in the upper part of the course.
``I just wasn't solid on my outside skis two times. It's not what I had in mind but you have to take what you get and there are still two runs to go,'' she said.
Clark was timed in 1 minute, 25.85 seconds to lead after the downhill leg.
Goetschl, silver medalist in the combined two years in Vail, Colo., and champion four years ago, was second in 1:26.04.
``I'm a little bit surprised to be ahead,'' Clark said. ``I'll go back and relax in the hotel and then try go out and just have a good time.''
Goetschl conceded that Kostelic would be hard to beat in an event that favors slalom specialists.
``It's unrealistic to beat her,'' said Goetschl, the World Cup champion. ``In the upper part, the course had a lot of curves that you had to take cleanly.''
In the men's practice, Rahlves finished in 1:24.11 to beat Maier by .12 seconds.
``The conditions are tough,'' Rahlves said. ``Tomorrow is going to be a good race but a tough one. It's a good confidence boost today. I'll just take tomorrow's race and hopefully back up what I did in the super-G. I'm ready.''
Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press