One can only imagine that this is not how Lindsey Vonn intended her final season of professional racing to unfold. First, she sustained another knee injury during a training run at Copper Mountain, Colo. in October; then, she missed out on the first downhill and Super G races of the World Cup season, a season where every race would count as Vonn declared it would be her last, though she still intended to chase Stenmark’s World Cup win record (86), of which she is only shy four wins; to add insult to injury, when Vonn was finally cleared to race again following extensive rehab, the race in St. Anton, Austria that was set to be her season debut on January 11 was cancelled.
And yet, despite everything, Vonn was excited to launch herself out of the start gate in the Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy downhills on Friday January 18 and Saturday January 19.
“I’m not very patient, so it’s been difficult for me to be on the sidelines for the beginning of the season,” Vonn said in a press conference following the first training run in Cortina on January 17. “But now I’m back and Cortina is the perfect place to start back up again. I’m excited there are three races here. Hopefully I’ll get some momentum here and get my confidence back.”
January 18 Cortina Downhill #1
After months off from racing and training and battling significant pain, it was clear that Vonn struggled with confidence in both downhills in Cortina. This first race back proved challenging for Vonn, who despite having a successful track record on the Cortina slope over her long career, made a number of errors in Friday’s race, the most significant towards the top of the course when she loaded too much pressure onto her inside ski (her left) and ended up dragging her inside pole and arm on the snow to course correct. That error cost her 0.69 seconds by the second split, a margin she couldn’t recover by the finish, and she ultimately tied for 15th place with Austria’s Ricarda Haaser.
“It’s just hard sometimes when it’s bumpy to trust my right leg,” Vonn told U.S. Ski and Snowboard, “and I still have a lot of pain, so I’m fighting through it the best I can, but I just have to find a faster way through it.”
Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec, also returning from injury this season but fresh off two successive victories in Val Gardena, Italy, finished second in Friday’s downhill. Austria’s Ramona Siebenhofer, who placed third in the Val Gardena downhill, took the win with a fantastic run, crossing the finish line 0.40 seconds faster than Stuhec. Fellow Austrian Stephanie Venier rounded out the podium in third.
American Laurenne Ross, who has been dealing with confidence issues of her own in the speed events this World Cup season, laid down a fierce run on Cortina’s track, looking more comfortable than she has in any downhill race this season. Starting relatively late in the race with bib number 23, Ross crossed the finish line 0.79 seconds behind Siebenhofer’s winning time—enough to not only crack into the top 20, but tie for ninth place with Austria’s Cornelia Huetter and settle in the top 10. This marks Ross’ career best downhill finish.
Teammate Alice Merryweather also skied a solid run to finish 22nd and collect World Cup points for the fourth time this season.
January 19 Cortina Downhill #2
In Saturday’s second downhill race, Vonn buckled down and skied more aggressively. She took a more direct line than the previous race, but did not maintain a tight, compact form down the course like the top racers and finished ninth, 1.36 seconds behind Siebenhofer, who took her second consecutive win in Saturday’s downhill. Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria, the current World Cup leader in downhill, finished second and Stuhec again made the podium with a third place finish.
Americans Ross and Merryweather both secured additional World Cup points in Saturday’s downhill with a 20th and 30th place finish respectively.
“I think it was still an improvement, but not what I’m looking for,” Vonn told U.S. Ski and Snowboard. “I haven’t skied downhill since November, so it was a bit of a stretch to just come back and just jump right into the podium.”
“Cortina is special to me for many reasons,” Vonn said. “It was my first [World Cup] podium here; I broke the women’s World Cup win record here, just a lot of really great memories. It’s my last race here so I’m going to enjoy it.”
Vonn’s chances for one last podium in Cortina are not yet over. She will start in Sunday’s Super G race, along with teammate Mikaela Shiffrin, the current World Cup Super G leader who opted out of Friday’s and Saturday’s downhill races.
“I have to stay positive and keep fighting,” Vonn said. “I’m still enjoying it. I love being in the start gate. I love feeling the adrenaline and going fast. It’s just not as fast as I had hoped for.”