Vonn targets Olympic ski glory after Sochi torment

Sölden (Austria) (AFP) –


American star Lindsey Vonn begins her road to Olympic redemption as the alpine skiing season starts this weekend at the Austrian resort of Soelden.

The 33-year-old Vonn missed the 2014 Sochi Games with a right knee injury, leaving her unable to add to downhill gold and a bronze in the Super-G from Vancouver.

But the four-time overall World Cup champion will line up in Saturday's season-opening giant slalom for her first race in the technical discipline in almost two years.

"I have been training well these past few days on the Italian glacier of Val Senales and I feel good," said Vonn.

Although slowed by a raft of crashes, injuries and subsequent surgery -- she called last year's severely fractured right arm "by far the most painful injury" of her career -- Vonn claimed downhill bronze at St Moritz in February to become the oldest female world championship medallist.

Her 77 career World Cup race triumphs are a women's all-time record and she trails only Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark's career mark of 86.

But Vonn has set aside her pursuit of that milestone for the time being to concentrate on her form going into next year's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"I'm really going to focus on the Olympics," Vonn said at the end of last season. "I have decided to ski another year past the Olympics to focus on the World Cup record after that, so that I don't have too much pressure on myself next season."

With Vonn approaching the twilight of her career, reigning Olympic slalom champion Mikaela Shiffrin has emerged as her compatriot's heir -- claiming last season's World Cup crown, albeit as several rivals missed large chunks of the campaign.

The 22-year-old, who again defended her slalom world title, finished clear of downhill gold medallist Ilka Stuhec who tore knee ligaments in training last week and is unlikely to recover in time for the Olympics.

Lara Gut, the 2015-16 overall World Cup winner, and twice former champion Anna Veith aren't yet ready to return from their respective knee injuries, although the former is targeting next month's stopover in North America.

"Normally I ski already in July. I'm not in a hurry, I want to come back strong," Switzerland's Gut, who badly damaged knee ligaments at the 2017 world championships, said last month.

- Hirscher hobbled -

Austrian sensation Marcel Hirscher secured a record sixth men's World Cup crown last season in dominating fashion, earning almost 700 points more than second-placed Kjetil Jansrud.

But the 28-year-old joins a long list of absentees in Soelden on Sunday, his hopes of an astonishing seventh straight title in jeopardy after he was ruled out until at least mid-November after fracturing his ankle.

A November 12 slalom in Levi will also come too soon, according to his doctor, although Hirscher will be itching to return as he looks to land an elusive Olympic title in February.

Despite his huge success elsewhere, the six-time world gold medallist has pocketed just a silver in the slalom at Sochi from two trips to the Winter Games.

Frenchman Alexis Pinturault is one of a hatful of pretenders to Hirscher's throne but is relying more on his own form than his rival's recovery time as he looks to mount a serious challenge.

"It changes absolutely nothing," said Pinturault of Hirscher's absence. "His injury isn't serious. I'm delighted because I prefer that he's there rather than being on the sidelines. He has enough ability to do well over the whole season."

Speed standout Jansrud and technical specialist Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway also harbour dreams of supplanting Hirscher, while five-time world champion Aksel Lund Svindal is working his way back from surgery on a detached meniscus.