SCHLADMING, Austria -- This year, Lindsey Vonn isn’t the only favorite in the super-G at the world skiing championships.
The American has won the World Cup super-G title for four straight seasons, but Vonn is only now regaining speed after a mid-season break to shrug off health problems. Several rivals have been showing the kind of form that could earn them the gold medal in Tuesday’s opening race.
Despite winning two of four races this season, Vonn isn’t even leading the discipline standings. She trails Tina Maze of Slovenia by four points.
"In downhill and super-G, I feel really strong," Vonn said.
Germany’s Viktoria Rebensburg used to be a giant slalom specialist but has been improving in speed events the last two seasons. She won the most recent super-G in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, two weeks ago.
Maze claimed her first super-G victory in St. Anton, Austria, in January to become the sixth female skier to win World Cup races in all five Alpine disciplines.
"Tina is having an incredible season," said Vonn, who is likely to lose her overall World Cup title to the Slovenian. "I don’t really compare myself to her as I had that break and missed so many races."
Vonn’s teammate, Julia Mancuso, finished in the top six of each super-G this season, including a second and a third place.
"It’s nice to have a little break (from the World Cup) and to put more focus into these races," said Mancuso, who won silver at worlds in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, two years ago.
"I really enjoy the championship races," Mancuso said. "I don’t really feel extra pressure. I just want to go fast."
Schladming, a small mining town in the province of Styria with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, is expecting a total of 400,000 visitors during worlds, which end Feb. 17 with the men’s slalom. Marcel Hirscher, Anna Fenninger and their teammates will face an uphill task to repeat Austria’s past successes when the racing starts on home snow.
An average crowd of 30,000 is expected at each race, with many of the fans hoping for a repeat of Austria’s success in 2011 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, when the country topped the medal table with four golds, three silvers and one bronze.
But the Austrian team is likely to have a hard time matching that feat this time around.
Downhill and super-G champion Elisabeth Goergl has failed to finish in the top 10 of any speed race this season. Slalom champion Marlies Schild is still doubtful after knee surgery in December, increasing pressure on super-combined champion Fenninger.
Maze has dominated the World Cup season so far, winning seven races with 10 more top-three finishes. She is in contention to beat Austrian great Hermann Maier’s record of 2,000 World Cup points in one season.
Maze could also become the first woman to medal in all five individual events at a single world championship. The only skier achieving that feat was Lasse Kjus of Norway at the 1999 championships in Vail and Beaver Creek, Colorado.
On the men’s side, Austria has high hopes for overall World Cup champion Hirscher, who missed the 2011 worlds with a broken foot.
Hirscher has 13 podium finishes, including six victories, this season. The Austrian will skip the speed races to fully focus on his strongest disciplines, slalom and giant slalom, though he was considering a start in the super-combined event.
In GS, defending world champion Ted Ligety looks to be the man to beat after taking four races with huge winning margins, despite having to use new skis following a rule change by the governing body that the American criticized before the season started.
In the speed events, former overall champion Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway, who took the super-combined title two years ago, is among the favorites again after winning three super-G races and a downhill.