ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — Her downhill title pretty much secured, Ilka Stuhec could’ve played things safe.
The Slovenian didn’t.
Under the weather and struggling to catch her breath, Lindsey Vonn could’ve held back.
The American wouldn’t. It made for quite a race.
Stuhec was able to hold off a hard-charging Vonn to win Wednesday and wrap up the overall downhill title at the World Cup Finals.
Vonn was going so fast at the finish that she couldn’t apply the brakes in time and briefly slid under the safety barriers. She was all smiles after being helped up.
“I was like a taco, wrapped up around real tight, burrito style,” she joked. “I was like, ‘I can’t breathe and can’t move, someone has to help me out of here real fast.’ I think that was one of the first times I’ve done that.
“I’m just happy nothing happened,” Vonn said. “So exhausted.”
On skis waxed and maintained by her mom, Stuhec finished in 1 minute, 36.95 seconds over a sun-splashed course. Vonn was 0.66 seconds back in second, while Sofia Goggia of Italy took third.
That was the same podium in a World Cup downhill race earlier this month on the course for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, just a slightly different order: Goggia, Vonn and Stuhec.
Stuhec has been a fascinating story this season. A World Cup veteran, the 26-year-old has been hampered by knee injuries that ultimately led to her losing funding on the Slovenian ski team. So she set up her own team, with her mother, Darja Crnko, serving as her ski technician. They’ve been rolling ever since.
And to think, early in the season, her goal was a modest top-10 finish. A downhill crown seemed too far-fetched to consider.
Now, it’s a reality.
“When things started happening so fast, we had to redo the goals for the season,” said Stuhec, who finished 137 points in front of Goggia for the season-long downhill title.
With her win, Stuhec also kept in place her slim hopes of the overall title, trailing American Mikaela Shiffrin by 278 points with three races remaining.
“It’s too much to think about it,” said Stuhec, who has a 15-point lead in the super-G standings over Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein heading into the final race Thursday. “I always tried to focus on myself and do my best every race. That’s what I’ll keep doing.”
This has been a tumultuous season for Vonn, who missed time early in the season as she worked her way back from the left knee she broke more than a year ago. In November, she fractured her upper right arm after a fall in training, leading to surgery and nerve damage so severe that she couldn’t even move her fingers. She still has a difficult time pushing out of the start gate with her ski pole.
Through it all, she picked up World Cup win No. 77 in a downhill race at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in January. She’s already passed Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell’s women’s record of 62 wins and next up is the outright record held by Ingemar Stenmark, the Swedish standout who earned 86 wins.
“I just think all my injuries make me appreciate what I do even more,” the 32-year-old Vonn said. “I don’t get frustrated. I know I can ski well; it’s a matter of executing when I’m on the course. I’m here, and doing what I love and I’m very thankful.”
This week, she’s been dealing with a cold that’s left her winded after each training run. She hinted the day before she might get to the finish line and collapse in exhaustion.
It played out like that, only she tumbled into the barrier.
“I was in the start and was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this,'” Vonn said. “I’m going to ski my best, and the results are the results. I can’t give any more than that. I pushed as hard as I could.”
Goggia had an impressive race, too, for her 12th World Cup podium this season. Goggia, Vonn and Stuhec have all come back from knee injuries.
“A nice, mutual respect,” Vonn said. “I really enjoy seeing them do well.”
By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer
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