COUNTDOWN TO SOCHI: Vonn’s injury puts Hoefl-Riesch in spotlight

With an injury taking American Lindsey Vonn out of the Olympic Games, Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch is now the skier to beat in the women’s Alpine competition. (Reuters)

With an injury taking American Lindsey Vonn out of the Olympic Games, Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch is now the skier to beat in the women’s Alpine competition. (Reuters)

LONDON — Lindsey who?

By the end of the Olympic women’s Alpine program at the Rosa Khutor resort that question might not sound so flippant.

A torn knee ligament may have robbed the Sochi Games of speed queen Lindsey Vonn but the American’s absence, along with all the media frenzy, means others have the chance to seize the spotlight.

Not that the main contenders for the five disciplines being contested high in the Caucasus Mountains are second-rate impostors, even if they do lack Vonn’s celebrity sparkle.

Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch, Vonn’s great rival and friend, will take over the tag as the woman to beat, Slovenian all-rounder Tina Maze will bring vast experience while young guns such as American teenager Mikaela Shiffrin and Swiss speedster Lara Gut will be itching to begin their medal collections.

Traditional powerhouse Austria will have high hopes for 24-year-old Anna Fenninger and seasoned competitor Elizabeth Goergl who between then will spearhead the team’s medal hunt, especially in the speed disciplines.

Fenninger has been in the groove all season on the World Cup with numerous podium finishes while Goergl will be hoping to add to the bronze medal she took in giant slalom in Vancouver where she finished in the top seven in four events.

Victory in the Cortina super-G last week, when she beat Hoefl-Riesch, was a timely reminder of Goergl’s pace.

All eyes will be on Hoefl-Riesch, however.

This year’s overall World Cup leader earned two golds to Vonn’s one in Vancouver but was still outshone as her’s came in slalom and super combined whereas Vonn dazzled in the downhill in which Hoefl-Riesch could manage only eighth.

This time the German is targeting the top of the podium in the blue riband event.

“Downhill is the king event in Alpine skiing and my dream has always been to have an Olympic medal in downhill and I’m having a pretty good season so far,” she said.

“But to win everything needs to perfect on the day.”

While expressing sympathy for Vancouver downhill champion Vonn, Hoefl-Riesch, who won back-to-back downhills at Lake Louise this season, said the challenge was still as great despite the American’s rotten luck.

“Just because she is not racing, there are some really strong girls who can be really fast in downhill,” she said.

Hopes can be dashed by a sudden change in conditions or a dark horse emerging from the also-rans but Hoefl-Riesch will be reassured by her previous visit to the near 3km Rosa Khutor slope two years ago when she left Goergl and Vonn trailing.

“I won the downhill two years ago there and I liked it so I will be going there with a good feeling,” Hoefl-Riesch, who married her manager Marcus Hoefl in 2011, said.

“I like the snow there but you can never guarantee it will be the same. I heard they changed some sections and you also don’t know about the conditions.”

Her main challengers in the speed events will be Swiss Marianne Kaufmann-Abderhalden, her exciting compatriot Gut, Liechtenstien’s Tina Weirather, daughter of of twice Olympic champion Hanni Wenzel, and Austrian duo Goergl and Fenninger.

American Julia Mancuso, second to Vonn in Vancouver and a proven “big day” skier, is also showing signs of form after strong finishes last weekend in Cortina.

“Things are going in the right direction and I know I have a lot more in me,” Mancuso said. “Training has been going really well and racing is getting better, so I’m getting there just in time for the Olympics.”

Slovenia’s 2013 overall World Cup winner Maze is another hitting top gear at just the right time after her first win of the season in the Cortina downhill.

If the speed events require smooth gliding and easy power, the all-action technicians like Shiffrin will look to zigzag their way to gold in the slalom events.

The 18-year-old from Vail, Colorado has surged to three World Cup slalom wins this season already and is hot favorite to win the Olympic gold in Sochi.

If she is feeling the pressure heading to her first Olympics, she is concealing it well.

“If I’m a medal contender, then that just means that I’m going to try to contend for a medal,” Shiffrin, whose profile has been boosted by an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, said after her third win of the season in Austria.

“It’s really cool to be a favorite going into the Olympics.

“Imagine being in my position. I’m 18 and I’m going to the Olympics. It’s one of my dreams come true.”

Shiffrin, known for her second run charges, will have stiff competition from the likes of Austrian veteran Marlies Schild, the dominant force in women’s slalom since the retirement of Croatia’s Janica Kostelic.

Second behind Hoefl-Riesch in Vancouver four years ago, Schild, who set a new record for World Cup slalom victories this season with the 35th of her career to overtake Vreni Schneider, knows it might be now or never for Olympic gold.

In giant slalom, the event the purists describe as the ultimate test of all-round technique, Sweden appears in good hands in the post Anja Paerson era, expecially in the absence of injured world champion Tessa Worley of France.

In Jessica Lindell-Vikarby, this season’s form skier in the discipline, and Maria Pietilae-Holmner, they have a formidable duo capable of medal placings.