In the northeast corner of Italy, the Boite River traverses the small alpine village of Cortina, which sits in the heart of the Ampezzo valley. This region of the Southern Alps was, for most of its history, under Austrian rule. This is where the Dolomites appear “like a massive coral reef ripped from the sea, strung with conifers and laced in snow.”
Lindsey Vonn, who climbed her first World Cup podium at this Italian venue, has also become the stuff of legend in the Ampezzo valley winning here five times since 2008. As for the current downhill point leaders, Stuhec has never made into the top 10 at Cortina and Gut was left looking up at Vonn from the third step in 2016. With the pressure Vonn can exert on her competition she could run the table and grab the downhill championship. If she does, it would be one of the biggest stories of the 2017 World Cup season.
Coursing through the pinnacles of this surreal backdrop is one of the most visually intimidating speed venues on the women's World Cup circuit. Corralled by towering stone edifices athletes will launch into Cortina's signature high-speed pitch for a downhill on January 28, followed by the Super G on January 29.
But beyond the challenge of this track, the question from racers and coaches alike is whether Vonn converts the momentum from her recent win in Garmisch to turn her injury-abbreviated season around by dominating the rest of the downhill events on the women's FIS calendar?
Out of action since November after sustaining a broken arm while training at Copper Mountain, Colorado, Vonn finds herself in the unusual position of chasing the field for the overall title, in particular Lara Gut (SUI)--the 2016 winner--and U.S. teammate Mikaela Shiffrin, who has a commanding lead over Gut. Vonn faces an impossible task of catching either of them in the race for the overall.
Vonn recently spoke about her recovery, the win in Garmisch, and how she feels about racing at Cortina.
It's been a long couple of months getting my hand working well again. It's still not great, but it was good enough to win. I put in a lot of hours of work to get back to this point--unfortunately, not a lot of skiing. It was hard to find the confidence that I know I have. This one was not easy. I definitely struggled.
The lack of training really shows in my skiing. I'm not aggressive. I'm not building speed in the turn. I'm not skiing like my normal self, so I tried really hard in the last two training runs to keep progressing, keep making steps forward. I did that, so I think it was the right progression.
To be honest, I wasn't sure what I was capable of. I tried every day in the training runs to take a step forward, to be more confident, to be more aggressive with my skiing. [In Garmisch] I just put it all on the line. I tried to risk more. I tried to really believe in myself. I did more than I expected and I saw the green light!
I just want to win. I want to win World Cups and I want to win World Championships. I'm going to do the best I can every day to keep improving and try to get closer to that goal.
It feels amazing; I worked really hard to come back. I feel sometimes I come back so quickly that everyone forgets how much time, energy, and blood, sweat, and tears it takes to come back, without any training, and just jump in there.
I had to trust myself, my team and my technician. I'm happy it only took me two races to get back on the top step. I proved to myself that all the work I put in is really coming through.
I really love Cortina!
Vonn still has a mathematical chance of winning the downhill championship title. Currently standing in ninth with 120 points after two events, Vonn could make up significant ground against first place leader Ilka Stuhec (SLO) who has 377 points and Gut with 260--assuming they both struggle under the pressure--by sweeping the remaining downhill races, a difficult but not unrealistic scenario.
Vonn can certainly draw strength for this effort from her astonishing podium count--127--and the fact she only needs nine more wins to match Ingemar Stenmark's long-standing World Cup record of 86 victories. But perhaps as astonishing as her win-count is Vonn's incredible ability to come back from numerous injuries and jump-start her title run again and again. As was witnessed on the Garmisch podium, this extraordinary resiliency leaves her competitors in a slumped pose.
U.S. Athletes scheduled to race in Cortina d'Ampezzo:
Stacey Cook: Mammoth Mountain, California
Breezy Johnson: Victor, Idaho
Julia Mancuso: Squaw Valley, California
Anna Marno: Centennial, Wyoming
Alice McKennis: New Castle, Colorado
Alice Merryweather: Hingham, Massachusetts
Laurenne Ross: Bend, Oregon
Leanne Smith: North Conway, New Hampshire
Mikaela Shiffrin: Eagle-Vail, Colorado
Lindsey Vonn: Vail, Colorado
Jackie Wiles: Aurora, Oregon
Top Picks for the 2017 Cortina d'Ampezzo Downhill:
Lindsey Vonn (USA): Defending 2016 champion, five-time winner
Sofia Goggia (ITA): Currently third in DH standings, home-town advantage
Lara Gut (SUI): She has the strength to stand up to the Vonn challenge
Christine Scheyer (AUT): A new face, won recently at Altenmarkt-Zauchensee
Viktoria Rebensburg (GER): She showed she's back from her injuries as well
Broadcast times for both events: (Check listings for schedule changes)
Streaming NBCSports.com 4:30 am ET
TV NBCSN 6:00am ET (combined coverage with the Men's DH in Garmisch)
Super G: 1/29/2017
Streaming NBCSports.com 5:30 am ET
TV NBCSN 5:30 pm ET