Lindsey Vonn's rivalry with World Cup leader Tina Maze heated up and threatened to boil over on Saturday, when the Slovenian's coaches accused the American defending champion of hurling an insulting expletive after winning a super-G.
Vonn edged Maze to extend her perfect record in four speed races this season, then was shocked to find herself in a fight she hadn't intended and didn't want.
In venting her emotions on crossing the line, and realizing she had taken the lead from main challenger Maze, Vonn acknowledged she used a curse word as an expression of relief.
Still, the Slovenian team — which targeted a three-race weekend sweep for Maze after her win in Friday's super-combined — surprised most observers by alleging that Vonn deliberately aimed an insult, and filed an official protest for "unsportsmanlike behaviour."
"They think I said something very bad about her when I came to the finish and that is absolutely not true," a clearly stunned Vonn said minutes after being told of the allegation. "It definitely hurts. I would never say anything bad about another athlete at the finish."
Vonn accepted that she had sworn — "and I shouldn't have done that" — but insisted it was a reaction to skiing poorly and failing to finish on Friday, knowing she is still short of full fitness after a recent illness.
"I'm struggling with my strength," the four-time World Cup champion said, insisting she was at her limits on Saturday. "I came down [the slope] with everything I have."
Marie-Michele Gagnon of Lac-Etchemin, Que., finished tied for 13th.
Vonn's version was soon backed by World Cup women's race director Atle Skaardal, who joined United States and Slovenia team coaches to study television footage of her post-race reactions.
"We could not find any abuse whatsoever and the protest was, of course, rejected," Skaardal said later at a scheduled meeting of national team coaches.
Skaardal criticized the Slovenia team's actions in originally demanding to see broadcasters' film, though without naming Andrea Massi, Maze's trainer and boyfriend.
"We had officials going into the television buses which is, of course, a very critical behaviour and in no way acceptable," Skaardal said at the meeting, which Massi did not attend. "I ask you to behave in a proper manner."
Massi declined to discuss details of the afternoon's drama with The Associated Press.
"I made the protest, I don't have any other comment," Massi said after the traditional evening prize-giving ceremony in the town centre, where Vonn and Maze hugged on the podium with no trace of tension.
"This is sport," Massi said, suggesting bitterness would not linger between the teams. "It [the problem] is finished after today."
Issue dealt with
U.S women's head coach Alex Hoedlmoser said the issue was dealt with.
"From our side there was never a problem," Hoedlmoser told The AP. "I told him I didn't think she would honestly ever do anything like that. If something like that did happen I wouldn't tolerate it, because that is not how we behave."
Vonn won in 1 minute, 2.71 seconds, 0.37 seconds faster than Maze and 1.01 ahead of Julia Mancuso of the U.S. in third.
Vonn's 57th career World Cup win, the second most in history, was her 20th in super-G. She is the four-time defending champion in the discipline title.
Vonn and Maze have combined to win seven of the nine World Cup events.
The off-piste drama perhaps revealed how Maze's camp believes she can finally win an overall title at age 29.
Vonn certainly respects her new rival's ability to challenge for the giant crystal globe.
"Tina has had an amazing season so far. It's going to be a tough season," said Vonn, speaking to reporters only after first seeking Maze in the finish area to explain what happened.
Vonn said she told Maze: "I hope you trust me enough to believe me."
Before the dispute was made public, Maze said the champion was "tough, but not impossible" to beat.
"I wanted to win but Lindsey was better. It was fun to ski today," she said.
Maze has a 163-point lead overall from 2011 champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, who placed fifth on Saturday. Vonn was third overall.
Maze will be favoured to add to her advantage on Sunday in a giant slalom. She has won both GS races this season and it has traditionally been a weaker event for Vonn.
Mancuso followed up a second place in super-G last weekend, and ensured Vonn has been joined on the podium by a teammate in all four victories.
"I want to keep Lindsey on her toes in super-G," said Mancuso, who is fifth in the overall standings. "You have to have a perfect run to win. Right now, Lindsey and Tina are in a different league."