Downhill favorite Vonn faces fresh Swiss challenge |

Downhill favorite Vonn faces fresh Swiss challenge

Graham Dunbar
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Lindsey Vonn, of the United States, takes a jump during the downhill portion of the women's Super-combined race, at the World Alpine Ski Championships in Val d'Isere, France, Friday, Feb. 6, 2009. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

VAL D’ISERE, France ” Downhill favorite Lindsey Vonn is likely to face competition from new challengers when she goes for a second gold medal at the World Championships on Sunday.

The 24-year-old American has already proven herself on the new Rhone-Alpes slope where the women’s speed events are held during the first week of the championships.

Vonn won the super G on Tuesday for her first gold medal at any worlds, and then led the downhill portion of the super-combined event on Friday before missing a gate in the slalom leg and being disqualified.

“She just has so much confidence in everything she does,” Canada’s top hope, Emily Brydon, said. “And that’s such a crucial thing to have. She’s in a league of her own right now, but she’s still beatable.”

Vonn’s biggest challenge Sunday ” apart from the almost inevitable visibility issues at these championships ” could come from fresh faces.

While her traditional rivals, Anja Paerson of Sweden and Maria Riesch of Germany, are struggling at Val d’Isere, the Swiss team is making its presence felt with 17-year-old Lara Gut winning silver in the super-combi.

Gut has already shown the technical skills needed to succeed here and also has a World Cup super G win this season in front of her home crowd at St. Moritz.

Meanwhile, Gut’s teammate, Dominique Gisin, closed in on defending champion Vonn atop the downhill standings after back-to-back wins last month.

“Lara is one of the top-three favorites,” Swiss women’s head coach Hugues Ansermoz said. “She is in the same category as Lindsey Vonn. Dominique is a great glider, and there are no gliding sections on this course, but she is super smart and will take her chances.”

Gisin tied with Paerson to share victory at Zauchensee, Austria, then won outright at Cortina, Italy, six days later for the 23-year-old’s first World Cup wins. She was also fifth in the downhill at the 2007 worlds ” when Paerson and Vonn went 1-2 at Are, Sweden ” before a serious knee injury interrupted her career.

Gut and Gisin are vying to be the first Swiss woman to win the downhill world title since Maria Walliser did it on native snow at Crans-Montana in 1987 and again at Vail, Colo., two years later.

Vonn has a more recent national tradition to emulate: her childhood idol Picabo Street was downhill queen at the 1996 worlds at Sierra Nevada, Spain, and Hilary Lindh followed up the next year at Sestriere, Italy.

As reigning world champion, Paerson is defending the last of the three titles she won in Are two years ago.

Yet since arriving in Val d’Isere, the 27-year-old Swede has been unhappy on the twisting, technical Rhone-Alpes slope, which winds through a forest and is shaded from direct sunlight. Paerson has failed to finish both events so far.

Austrian great Renate Goetschl, winner of 24 World Cup downhills who also skied out early in Tuesday’s super G, is not looking for excuses.

“You have to like it,” she said. “It’s a World Championship and the slope is how it is and you have to handle it.”

Visibility could again be a problem with snow that started falling Saturday afternoon forecast to continue until close to the 1 p.m. local start time on Sunday. Heavy cloud cover is also expected.

Brydon was upbeat as she seeks a Canadian downhill double after John Kucera took the men’s signature event with his winning run in the brief spell of Saturday morning sunshine.

“When you have so much terrain and it’s so bumpy and you have no light it’s really hard to be aggressive,” the 28-year-old Brydon said. “But they put a lot of dye down and it was totally safe.”

Few teams were happy that a training run scheduled for Saturday was canceled to repair ruts in the course left after the slalom portion of the super-combi on Friday.

Gisin and Riesch, especially, among the 37 starters would have benefited from another look. Both crashed in earlier training runs on the 1.4-mile course that twists and turns to keep racers’ speed safely under control as they drop 2,267 feet in altitude.

“With free skiing, training runs and the super-combi, some people have been on this downhill five times already,” Ansermoz said. “They have an advantage.”

And who are among those people? Vonn and Gut.

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