LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) — To understand the true significance of Lindsey Vonn's return to racing Friday, ignore the World Cup downhill results sheet, with a slow-for-her time and 40th-place finish, and instead examine a calendar.
It had been 10 months since Vonn last competed, ripping two ligaments in her right knee and breaking a bone in that leg in a high-speed crash at the world championships. It had been less than three weeks since she partially re-tore her surgically repaired ACL in a fall during practice.
And there remain two months for the American to get ready for the Sochi Olympics. Still, Vonn began Friday hoping for a victory, regardless of the likelihood. As it turned out, she felt some jitters and skied conservatively by her standards, winding up more than three seconds behind winner Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany on an afternoon when the temperature dropped below minus-15 degrees (minus-25 Celsius).
"I try to look on the bright side of everything, and I was really optimistic that I could come down and just — first race, right out of the blocks — win, and it was wishful thinking," said Vonn, a four-time overall World Cup champion and 2010 Olympic downhill gold medalist.
"I was just too nervous. I was really tight, and I skied that way," she said. "I wasn't in a really deep tuck. I wasn't pushing the line where I could have. And I just kind of skied it, and that's not my style. That's not how I attack a race."
Vonn missed the previous 14 World Cup events, including the first five this season. She had been aiming to return last week at Beaver Creek, Colo., not far from her hometown of Vail, but scrapped those plans after a training crash Nov. 19.
Vonn entered Friday with a seven-race winning streak at Lake Louise, and 14 of her 59 career World Cup victories came at the resort in the Canadian Rockies, a big reason she set the bar high. "It does take a little time to build the confidence back up," said Vonn, who said she plans to take part in Saturday's downhill and Sunday's super-G. "It's been a long time."
She said her right knee, which she protects with a brace when skiing, was "fine." Hoefl-Riesch, though, said Vonn told her the "knee was kind of bothering her." "It's, of course, not an easy situation for her. She wants to keep the season going and take a chance for Olympics," said double Vancouver Games gold medalist Hoefl-Riesch, whose first victory of the season came in 1 minute, 56.03 seconds, well ahead of runner-up Marianne Kaufmann-Abderhalden of Switzerland (1:56.73) and third-place Elena Fanchini of Italy (1:57.23). "So she, of course, needs to do races. I hope that she can get more confident for her knee."
Vonn finished in 1:59.22, and spent plenty of time walking around afterward signing autographs — hats, helmets, gloves, even a red sneaker — and posing for pictures with fans. "Obviously, she's still favoring her leg," U.S. teammate Laurenne Ross said. "She's just trying to be careful and I think she's just trying to get out here to get herself back into it."
A year after Vonn and Stacey Cook gave the U.S. Ski Team a 1-2 finish in both Lake Louise downhills, and Vonn and Julia Mancuso gave the Americans another 1-2 showing in the super-G, the country's top showing was Julia Ford's 21st place. Mancuso was 26th, Jacqueline Wiles was 32nd, Cook was 39th, Leanne Smith was 49th, and Ross was 56th out of 60 starters.
"I'll be brutally honest with you: I'm very disappointed with our result today," U.S. women's speed coach Chip White said. "It's probably one of our worst performances in recent history as a group." When it came to Vonn, he recognized the result did not matter.
"People think she can win this thing in her sleep," White said. "To have her win this today would have been a miracle, to tell you the truth. We're just really pleased to see her back and see her get back in the game."
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