Olympics: Shiffrin aims to fill Vonn's big boots

Olympic alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin poses for a portrait during the 2013 US Olympic Team Media Summit in Park City, Utah on Oct 2, 2013. The absence of media princess and reigning Olympic downhill champion Lindsey Vonn has dominated the build-up to
Olympic alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin poses for a portrait during the 2013 US Olympic Team Media Summit in Park City, Utah on Oct 2, 2013. The absence of media princess and reigning Olympic downhill champion Lindsey Vonn has dominated the build-up to the women's alpine skiing programme at the Sochi Winter Games. Her place as the US team's likely medal getter has gone to Shiffrin. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (AFP) - The absence of media princess and reigning Olympic downhill champion Lindsey Vonn has dominated the build-up to the women's alpine skiing programme at the Sochi Winter Games.

She attempted a brave comeback after suffering a horrendous injury at last year's world championships in Schaldming, but eventually halted her season after her re-built knee failed to respond as planned in Val d'Isere in December.

The Organisers, though of course wishing her sporting prowess was on show, will no doubt be breathing a huge sigh of relief that the paparazzi roadshow that accompanies Vonn and boyfriend Tiger Woods will be absent from the Russian hills.

Her place as the US team's likely medal getter has gone to 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin, who became the youngest American, at 17, to win world gold when she scooped the slalom crown after Vonn had been taken home from Austria.

Shiffrin could only manage seventh at the slalom in the final World Cup event in St Moritz last week, which was won by debutante winner Frida Hansdotter of Sweden.

The podium was completed by Austria's Marlies Schild and her younger sister Bernadette, all of whom will be in contention in the technical events.

In Vonn's absence, the women's speed events evidently become a much more open competition, with German Maria Hoefl-Riesch currently atop the World Cup standings in downhill, with Liechtenstein's Tina Weirather, Swiss pair Marianne Kaufmann-Abderhalden and Lara Gut, Austrian Anna Fenninger and Slovenia's Tina Maze all well in contention.

All-rounder Hoefl-Riesch, possibly in her last competitive season, will look to add to the slalom and super-combined golds she won in the 2010 Winter Games.

The German also took super-combined gold and two bronzes (downhill and team) in last year's world championships, with Maze winning the super-G and two silvers (super-combined, giant slalom).

Maze also finished fifth in the slalom and seventh in the downhill to underline her incredible all-round skiing abilities, but her form this season has been sketchy although she won in Cortina to bury a few ghosts.

With Hoefl-Riesch's teammate Viktoria Rebensburg taking giant slalom gold in Whistler four years ago, Germany topped the medals table with three golds, with the Americans amassing a leading haul of eight.

The US team, with two golds, three silvers and three bronzes, were buoyed by medal-winning performances by veteran duo Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso.

For Shiffrin, Miller was a hero and she has expressed hopes his individualist approach of "skiing the mountain as it needs to be skied" will inspire her.

"Since I was a little racer, @MillerBode was my #hero - it was about the skiing, not the win... To me he's the most #inspirational skier ever," she tweeted.

Win or not, Miller has five Olympic medals, and the pressure will be on Shiffrin to deliver amid pressure from the raft of more experienced racers she rubs shoulders with week-in, week-out on the World Cup circuit.

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