SOELDEN, Austria — While injuries have forced many of ski racing’s biggest names to sit out the season-opening World Cup events this weekend, American standout Lindsey Vonn has unexpectedly announced her start in the women’s giant slalom.
The absence of GS specialists like Lara Gut, Anna Veith, Federica Brignone and Eva-Maria Brem might present Vonn with a good chance to score valuable World Cup points in Saturday’s race, her first GS start since January 2016.
Those points could ultimately help Vonn, who is ranked outside the top 30 in the discipline standings, to get a more favorable starting position in the Olympic giant slalom in Pyeongchang in February.
“The most important thing and what I am concentrating on are the Olympics,” Vonn said Thursday. “The biggest thing this season is staying healthy. I really don’t want to take any chances. I just want to ski solid. I just need enough points to get in the top 30 so I can start 16th.”
Mostly skipping the technical events of slalom and GS in her recent injury-marred seasons, Vonn was initially planning to start her season at speed races in Lake Louise, Alberta, in the first weekend of December. Less than a week ago she wasn’t even considering flying over to Europe, but she changed her mind on Saturday and sat in a plane the next day.
“I feel like I am in a good enough shape and it’s a good opportunity,” said Vonn, adding that a few days of GS training during camps in New Zealand and Chile had gone well.
“It’s more of a tactical decision than a decision of trying to get on the podium or so. I am not thinking about the overall (title), I am not thinking about trying to come here and show everyone what’s up in GS. I just want to get some solid points. That’s all.”
Mostly because of various injuries, Vonn hasn’t competed in the traditional season-opener on the Rettenbach glacier since 2012, a year after she won the race and went on to win the last of her four overall titles that season.
While this time Vonn can race, many of her competitors will be sidelined. The list of injured skiers became even longer last weekend when Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec, who won the World Cup downhill title from Vonn last season, tore her ACL.
It’s a similar story on the men’s side.
Marcel Hirscher broke his left ankle after straddling a gate in practice in August, and though he returned on skis weeks ago, his recovery process has not been going as smooth as what he hoped for. The record six-time overall champion from Austria said he had “no idea” when he would be able to join the circuit again.
“At the moment I am thinking day by day. Today I am not even sure if I can ski tomorrow,” Hirscher said.
Other former overall champions are missing the season-opener as well. Aksel Lund Svindal had knee surgery last season and the Norwegian planned his comeback at speed races next month, while Carlo Janka of Switzerland was out indefinitely after damaging his ACL in training on Tuesday.
On the other hand, some racers will be making their comeback from injuries this weekend, most notably Ted Ligety, who had surgery in January.
“Back surgery is a lot easier than knee surgery,” the American Olympic GS champion said. “I was able to train in April. It’s the first time in a few years that I actually feel somewhat healthy.”
The current injury situation resembles the build-up to the 2010 Vancouver Games, when medal favorites like downhill world champion John Kucera, slalom world champion Jean-Baptiste Grange, former overall champion Nicole Hosp and Swiss talent Gut, who had won two silvers as a 17-year old at the 2009 worlds, all missed the games.
“I don’t know if there is a relation between the number of injuries and the Olympics but it could be,” said French skier Alexis Pinturault, who won the first race of the season last year. “You want to be at your highest level and you want to improve yourself so maybe you are doing more and then the injuries are coming. Also, sometimes it is just bad luck, of course.”
Vonn also called it “not just coincidence” that the number of injuries tends to increase going into Olympic seasons.
“Obviously with the Olympics coming up everyone is training as hard as they can,” said Vonn, the 2010 downhill gold medalist who missed the Sochi Games four years later following knee surgery.
“Sometimes you push things too hard and you train too much. Our sport is so dangerous that anything can happen any time,” the American said. “I am not surprised to see so many injuries but it is really disappointing. We need these big stars to be racing, we need to grow our sports and have these faces always around.”