BEAVER CREEK, Colo. — The most important skiing run, the one that has the most significant impact on the Sochi Olympics, came not at midday on the sun-drenched slopes here, where 60 women ripped through a treacherous downhill run and were greeted by cowbell-ringing fans at the finish. Rather, it came 10 miles up the road at Vail Mountain, where Lindsey Vonn — preparing for competition rather than racing in it — got back on snow for the first time in the nine days since she reinjured her right knee, putting her Olympics in question again.
It is odd for an event to be defined by who is absent rather than who is present, but such is the case as the World Cup ski circuit makes its only domestic stop. Had she not crashed during a training run Nov. 19, Vonn would have made her return to racing — the first time since she shredded her knee Feb. 5 — in Friday’s downhill. Instead, the setback left her retesting the knee, in which she slightly tore her anterior cruciate ligament, in hopes of returning next week at Lake Louise, Alberta.
“It’s not like a tennis match where two people are playing against” each other, said Switzerland’s Lara Gut, one of Vonn’s toughest and most well-rounded adversaries. “Here, we are 60 in the gate, and if Lindsey’s not here, we are 59. I think she’s really a strong skier, but World Cup is not only about Lindsey.”
That is the tack for the other racers to take this weekend, which features Friday’s downhill followed by a super-G on Saturday and a giant slalom Sunday. Gut is perhaps best equipped to handle it because she is talented and determined, focused on making her first Olympic team after a crash in the fall of 2009 robbed her of a chance at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Gut dominated Friday’s race over a demanding 1.57-mile course, beating Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein by 0.47 seconds and Italy’s Elena Fanchini by 0.98 seconds. This came after she had performed superbly in the training runs earlier in the week. It came after she won the season-opening giant slalom in October in Soelden, Austria.
“She’s got such a light touch,” American Laurenne Ross said. “When she hits those chops, she just kind of floats. She’s got that position where it’s just like nothing fazes her. . . . She’s soooooo smooth. It’s so cool to watch.”
These are all things that could be said of Vonn, the defending Olympic downhill champion, the winner of four World Cup overall titles, the most accomplished American Alpine skier ever. She is the one figure who, in the United States, could cast a shadow over an entire event in which she did not participate.
So it was Friday. Her training runs at Vail, where she lives, came in the early morning, before competition began here. They came over a super-G course — slightly slower and with a few more turns than a downhill, Alpine skiing’s fastest discipline. And they were, apparently, encouraging.
“First day back on snow since my crash and it was awesome!” Vonn wrote on her Facebook page. “I’m very thankful for many things this year (family, loved ones, great fans) but at this moment I’m happy to be doing what I love — skiing!!”
Vonn or no Vonn, the Americans posted disappointing results Friday. Stacey Cook was the top U.S. finisher in 19th, nearly two-and-a-quarter seconds behind Gut. Julia Mancuso, owner of three Olympic medals, was behind her in 20th, with Ross tied for 22nd.
Mancuso, who was a surprising second to Vonn in the 2010 Olympic downhill, has higher hopes for Saturday’s super-G. It is that discipline in which she finished second in last year’s season-long World Cup standings and was top three four times in six races.
It is early in the World Cup season, and the United States won’t name its Olympic ski team until Jan. 26. But until Vonn gets back in competition, her absence will color how the team is viewed.
“I think it all just depends on how Lindsey does in the next weeks when she’s coming back,” Mancuso said. “Time will only tell. So we’re just kind of always as a team and individually trying to do our best, and when Lindsey comes back, hopefully she’s at her best and we have a high benchmark to try and race for.”
Whether that’s next week or when the circuit heads to Europe, no one yet knows. But from the outside, it certainly appears the more important runs this weekend will be at Vail for rehabilitation, not Beaver Creek for prizes.
From the inside? That’s a different matter. At the 2009 world championships, Gut won two silver medals. Then she wrecked.
“Nobody asked Lindsey if it was different that I wasn’t at the Olympics,” she said Friday. “So if you win, nobody cares who is there and who is not.”