CORTINA D'AMPEZZO, Italy - Overall World Cup leader Maria Hoefl-Riesch won a shortened downhill Friday and established herself as the favourite to take away two of Lindsey Vonn's titles.
Hoefl-Riesch took full command of the downhill standings that the injured Vonn dominated for the past six years and improved her status as the favourite for the women's downhill at the Sochi Olympics on Feb. 12 — the race Vonn won at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
"The downhill globe is a big goal for me," Hoefl-Riesch said. "The last years it was always impossible because Lindsey was so strong. I already was skiing strong in the last years but there was never a chance, because I was not consistent enough on every single track like Lindsey.
"And of course I would love to win the Olympic downhill," Hoefl-Riesch said. "That's the biggest race in skiing."
Julia Roth of Waterloo, Ont., was 44th. Larisa Yurkiw of Owen Sound, Ont., did not start the first run.
With her parents and husband in attendance, Hoefl-Riesch won in 1 minute, 17.84 seconds on the Olympia delle Tofane course for the 27th World Cup victory of her career.
"I knew that I had to attack a lot with a shortened course and that it would be very tight," Hoefl-Riesch said. "It was really flat light and tricky in a few turns where some girls had big problems. But not me."
Hoefl-Riesch said that she tweaked her left knee while landing a jump and that she felt some pain but was not overly concerned.
Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein finished second, 0.31 seconds behind, and Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria was third with the No. 39 bib, 0.75 behind.
Lara Gut of Switzerland was fourth and Stacey Cook of the United States was fifth as the pair missed out on the podium by 0.01 and 0.03 seconds, respectively.
It was the best result this season for Cook, who finished second in two downhills in Lake Louise, Alberta, last season.
The victory gave Hoefl-Riesch an 85-point lead over Weirather in the downhill standings after six of eight races, with wins worth 100 points each.
In the overall standings, Hoefl-Riesch leads Weirather by 158 points.
Hoefl-Riesch's other two wins this season also came in downhill, in Lake Louise. She also has podium results in slalom, super-combined and super-G and credits part of her all-around success to Hermann Maier's former physical trainer, Heinrich Bergmueller, who she began working with in the off-season.
"I was also training hard the summers before but it's a new way with a new coach and some things are different," she said. "I feel much stronger this year and with my recovery for all disciplines."
Vonn ended her season recently to tend to her right knee, which she first injured in a horrific crash at last year's world championships in Schladming, Austria.
Hoefl-Riesch is friendly with Vonn but she wasn't about to take anything away from her own success just because her rival is out now.
"That's skiing," said Hoefl-Riesch, who had four serious injuries in 2005. "I was not at the Olympic Games in 2006 and no one was asking the winner of the medals there if they miss me. So a medal is a medal and a title is a title, no matter who is competing and who is not."
Vonn used to spend Christmas at Hoefl-Riesch's home in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and they remain in contact.
"We were just writing a little on WhatsApp a little bit," Hoefl-Riesch said. "I think she's doing OK and I hope that we can talk on the phone before I go to Sochi."
Due to overnight snow and difficulty preparing the course, the start was delayed for half an hour and the course was shortened slightly — chopping off about 20 seconds of racing.
With softer snow and flat light, it was a sharp change in conditions from Wednesday's only training run, which was held under bright sunshine.
Conditions improved for later starters as a tailwind moved in. The wind helped Schmidhofer, whose only other podium finish also came in Cortina, having finished second in a super-G last year.
"I was hoping for a tailwind," Schmidhofer said, before she addressed her chances of being selected for Sochi. "I hope the coaches look at my result."
The revised start put skiers directly into the course's best-known section, the Tofane schuss — a long straightaway between two high rock outcroppings.
"I generally do OK when there are straight shots out of the gate like that," Cook said. "So that was a little confidence booster to kick out of the gate, get on my skis and not have to do too much and then get into it. And then I just tried to not ski a perfect line but ski perfect body position and really attacking. And it seems to have been fast."
Elisabeth Goergl, the Austrian who won a super-G on Thursday, lost control after hitting a gate and slammed into the safety padding at full speed. But she got right back up, skied down and said she was not injured.
Another downhill is scheduled for Saturday, followed by a second super-G on Sunday to round out a series of four races in four days.
Two of the races were originally scheduled for last weekend in Cortina but were wiped out due to heavy snowfall. The other two were moved from Garmisch due to a lack of snow in the German resort.
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