Vonn closes gap on Riesch in overall title race

Posted March 07, 2011, at 6:06 p.m.
Last modified March 07, 2011, at 8:53 p.m.

For as good of a showing as Lindsey Vonn had over the weekend, she realizes that winning a fourth straight World Cup overall title remains a long shot.

The optimistic side of Vonn thinks the crown is still possible after making up a staggering 100 points on leader and good friend Maria Riesch of Germany.

But the pragmatic part of her admitted in a teleconference Monday that it’s “not likely.”

Vonn trails Riesch by 96 points heading into the final six races, four of which involve the giant slalom and slalom — hardly Vonn’s best events.

“Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a chance. But it’s not a big one,” Vonn said. “The odds are not on my side. It’s still Maria’s title to lose. I’m going to still keep fighting until the very last race.”

Vonn had quite a performance last weekend to make things a little more interesting down the stretch. She clinched discipline titles in the super-combined, downhill and super-G during the races in Tarvisio, Italy.

While the Olympic downhill champion has closed the gap, Riesch is far from fretting, especially since the upcoming events favor her style.

“I knew that the gap would be a little bit narrower at this point, but now come the technical events and I hope that the margin will be bigger again after the upcoming weekend,” Riesch said as the women’s circuit travels to Spindleruv Mlyn, Czech Republic, for giant slalom and slalom races next weekend, before finishing up with the World Cup finals in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, March 16-20. “I am not going to let myself be bothered. I knew that it would be a hard fight until the end.”

This has been a season filled with bumps and bruises for the 26-year-old Vonn. She has come back from a concussion and competed with a sore left knee, along with inventing new ways to stave off crashes that would’ve put most skiers into the protective netting.

If she was somehow able to storm back and win this overall title, she said it would be one of her biggest triumphs.

“I’ve never been able to do that, come back from being down essentially the entire year and still be able to win the overall. It would be a great achievement,” Vonn said. “But I have a lot of work to do before I can be happy with that.”

While Vonn has contended with nagging injuries, Riesch has been remarkably healthy. About the only thing that’s slowed her down in what’s been a memorable season was a case of the flu at world championships.

Even that hardly bothered her as she still won two bronze medals.

Riesch has been consistent all season, gaining points in all disciplines. She’s been on the podium 16 times this season, including six wins, to build up a big lead.

And it’s not like Vonn is having an off season — she’s been on the podium 15 times. Last season, Vonn was in the top 3 a total of 17 times.

“I’m really happy with my results this year. Maria is obviously having an amazing season, one that’s incredible by any standards,” Vonn said. “I’m really happy to be this close to her at this point of the year.”

The difference has been the technical events, where Riesch has shone and Vonn has struggled. Vonn has four top-10 finishes in the slalom and giant slalom, while Riesch boasts eight, including a slalom win.

“It’s tough to compete with someone who’s skiing so well all the time,” Vonn said. “I can never really gain any ground on her. She’s making it really tough for me.”

Still, Vonn helped turn in quite an afternoon for the Americans on Sunday by winning the super-G, while teammate Julia Mancuso took second. World Cup rookie Laurenne Ross nearly joined them on the podium, but was edged out by Riesch.

It’s the first time the U.S. women have taken three of the top four spots since Jan. 14, 2007, in a super-combined race in Austria, with Mancuso first, Vonn second and Resi Stiegler fourth.

With her finish, Ross earned a spot at the World Cup finals, where only the top 25 ranked skiers in each discipline qualify.

“It was really cool,” said Ross, who’s from Klamath Falls, Ore. “I came into the weekend with no expectations. I gave it everything I had. … I’m a little bummed I didn’t make the podium. Fourth place — I’m happy with it. I’m psyched.”

For Vonn, the stellar weekend meant three more crystal globes to transport safely home to Vail, Colo., always an adventure.

Typically, she wraps the trophies in towels and carries them onto the plane in a backpack, her husband, Thomas Vonn, lending a hand as well.

Last season was especially challenging, especially with four globes to take back, including the 50-pound trophy to commemorate the overall crown.

“It’s a process really,” Vonn said.

One she certainly doesn’t mind.

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Nesha Starcevic in Germany and Andrew Dampf in Italy contributed to this report.

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