Vonn aims to recapture women's crown from ex-best friend
For the first time in three years, Lindsey Vonn is entering the ski season without the mantle of defending overall World Cup champion.
That's just one of many changes for the Olympic downhill champion this season.
Clearly Vonn's relationship with top rival Maria Hoefl-Riesch has changed, after the German — once considered the American's best friend — snapped Vonn's run of three consecutive overall titles by a mere three points (1,728 to 1,725) last March.
To avoid another close defeat, U.S. women's head coach Alex Hoedlmoser is working on instilling a more aggressive approach in Vonn in her weaker events: giant slalom and slalom.
Hoedlmoser also has assigned one of his assistant coaches to look after Vonn's specialized training needs throughout the season, and she is expected to use a personal motor home more often at races in Europe this season, a practice pioneered by Bode Miller.
"It's going to be interesting. She's highly motivated," Hoedlmoser said in a phone interview with The Associated Press as Vonn and teammates prepared for this weekend's season opener on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria.
Already known for extensive pre-season workouts with her crew of Austrian trainers, Vonn put in even more time this off-season.
"She did more runs on a daily basis, more testing," Hoedlmoser said. "She did pretty much whatever she could do in that time frame. She's definitely on a mission."
Vonn, who struggled with a mild concussion last season, mounted a late comeback to challenge Hoefl-Riesch at the World Cup finals, but the title was awarded to the German when the season-ending giant slalom was cancelled because of poor snow conditions.
Vonn said she was "devastated" to have been denied the chance to retain her title and refused to meet with the media immediately afterward, releasing a statement instead.
Then Hoefl-Riesch said Vonn was cold toward her when the new World Cup champion hugged her on the podium.
For years, Vonn and her husband, Thomas, a former U.S. Ski Team racer who also serves as a personal coach, have spent Christmas at the Riesch family home. But Vonn did not attend her rival's wedding to agent Marcus Hoefl this off-season and according to Hoedlmoser, the skiers' changed relationship was evident when they crossed paths during pre-season training in New Zealand.
"I hope for both of them that they find some way to deal with each other without making it nasty," Hoedlmoser said. "How they want to approach it I'm not sure, but I guess we'll see. But I'm completely staying out of it.
"That's something between the two of them — or between the four of them," the coach added, referring to the skiers' husbands.
The U.S. team did not make Vonn available for an interview.
As for Vonn's tactics, Hoedlmoser believes part of the reason she lost last season's title was for being too cautious early on in GS and slalom. He says she can aim for the podium consistently in those events, demonstrated by a career-best GS result of third at the Czech resort of Spindleruv Mlyn toward the end of last season and two career wins in slalom.
"I think that's something that she's learned and I'm pretty positive that she's going to approach things a little bit different this year and try to just go out and win every race," Hoedlmoser said. "That should be the goal. If that means that sometimes you're not going to finish, then that's the way it is, but she has the potential to be in every single event, so why not do it?"
Hoedlmoser has assigned Jeff Fergus, a coach who has been with the U.S. team for a few years, to work almost exclusively with Vonn.
"He's the guy that is going to take care of all of Lindsey's tech training, because she definitely has different needs when she's training with the speed team," Hoedlmoser said. "And he's going to follow her around to tech races also."
Chris Knight has performed has a similar role with Julia Mancuso in recent seasons.
"What I'm trying to get out of this is that there's always somebody there who knows what needs she has and works close with Thomas, so we have a better insight to what's actually going on also," Hoedlmoser said. "He gets along really well with her and he's a very talented coach.
"It's a little different approach, but it seemed to work really well from what I've seen so far in the prep period."
With 41 career wins, Vonn could surpass Renate Goetschl (46 wins) this season and move into third on the all-time list behind only Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell (62) and Swiss legend Vreni Schneider (55).
But the main goal is reclaiming the overall title, and Hoefl-Riesch might not be Vonn's only competition.
Slovenian Tina Maze moved up from fourth in 2009-10 to third last season, plus won gold in giant slalom and silver in super-combined at the world championships.
"It's going to be tough no matter what," Hoedlmoser said. "I see not just Maria there, but Tina Maze I think is actually a threat for the overall, and maybe some of the Austrians.
"I honestly don't know how Maria is handling this whole situation, if she's been relaxing a little bit, or if she's going to punch out more even — it's hard to say. But all we can focus on is our own stuff and that's what we're doing."