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With Lindsey Vonn returning, Ilka Stuhec looks forward to downhill fight

United States’ Lindsey Vonn smiles during a news conference in Altenmarkt-Zauchensee, Austria, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. (Giovanni Auletta / Associated Press)
United States’ Lindsey Vonn smiles during a news conference in Altenmarkt-Zauchensee, Austria, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. (Giovanni Auletta / Associated Press)
By Eric Willemsen Associated Press

ALTENMARKT-ZAUCHENSEE, Austria – Lindsey Vonn’s main rival for the World Cup downhill title is happy to see the American standout finally returning to the start gates.

“It’s good that she is coming back,” Ilka Stuhec said after a downhill had to be rescheduled for the next day due to excessive snowfall. “When stars return, that’s always great.”

Vonn, the four-time overall champion and record winner of 76 races, hasn’t competed since February last year because of a knee injury and a broken arm. She planned her comeback this weekend, less than 10 weeks after undergoing surgery on the complicated fracture of her right upper arm.

A winner of eight downhill globes, the American announced this week that winning the trophy again was one of her main goals, despite missing the first three of this season’s eight races.

All three downhill races were won by Stuhec, who leads the discipline standings with the maximum 300 points, 138 clear of Italy’s Sofia Goggia and 170 ahead of Lara Gut, the defending overall champion from Switzerland.

“Well, she has to give it a try,” Stuhec told a news conference when asked about Vonn’s challenge. “But she is not the only one who wants to win it.”

Regardless of Vonn’s return, the Slovenian skier was reluctant to reflect on her own chances to win the downhill title.

“I haven’t been thinking about it too much,” she said. “There are still a lot of races and I want to take it day by day.”

Like Vonn, Stuhec has struggled with knee injuries. She underwent surgery on her right knee several times and ultimately lost her spot in the Slovenian ski team, forcing her to set up her own team.

Now travelling the World Cup circuit with her own coach, Gregor Kostomaj, and her mother, who prepares her skis, Stuhec has waited long for success. She failed to get a podium result in any of her 109 World Cup starts prior to this season.

Switching to a new ski manufacturer in the offseason, Stuhec, who mainly trains with male skiers, has racked up four wins so far this campaign after also triumphing in a combined event.

It has made her the new ski star in her home country, following in the footsteps of former overall champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist Tina Maze, who retired last week.

“Now people on the streets in Slovenia recognize me,” Stuhec said. “It’s sometimes difficult when people keep coming to congratulate me or to take photos.”

The strong results have given her enough confidence to face the fight with Vonn, who has dominated the downhill discipline for so long.

“She is a great skier, obviously,” Stuhec said. “But some other girls are not too bad, either. I am looking forward to the race.”

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