New faces breaking through on women’s World Cup ski circuit

Slovenia's Ilka Stuhec competes on her way to win an alpine ski, women's World Cup combined, in Val d'Isere, France, Friday, Dec. 16, 2016. –The Associated Press

VAL D’ISERE, France (AP) — In the absence of established stars like Lindsey Vonn and Tina Maze, new faces are breaking through on the women’s World Cup circuit.

Especially Ilka Stuhec.

The Slovenian won a World Cup Alpine combined race on Friday for her third victory this season — having never finished higher than fourth before this year.

Sitting in third spot after the morning’s downhill, she ended up .12 seconds ahead of Michelle Gisin and .16 clear of Soffia Goggia following the slalom on the Oreiller-Killy course.

Stuhec was fourth in the overall World Cup standings, while Goggia was up to second with her fifth podium in seven races this season. The Italian also had a career best of fourth before this season began.

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That was not the only thing these two skiers have in common. Their careers were hampered by multiple knee operations: Five for Stuhec and four for Goggia.

Reflecting on those injuries, Stuhec said: “I wouldn’t change a thing, even though sometimes it was really, really hard. I learned a lot about myself and people around me.”

Goggia said injuries helped to forge her character.

“It’s the hunger I have at the start gate. I’m aching for more, always,” she said. “I can be really satisfied with who I am. The last injury three years ago was really heavy and it took two years for me to come back. Tough times, but I’m here now.”

There should be plenty more points on offer for both, considering the situation in women’s skiing.

Vonn, the four-time overall World Cup champion, was recovering from a broken arm, while Maze — the 2013 World Cup champion — has retired. Two-time World Cup winner Anna Veith (nee Fenninger) was working her way back from a serious right-knee injury.

Goggia, who was behind American slalom specialist Mikaela Shiffrin in the standings, played down her chances.

“It’s a big goal,” Goggia said. “But at the moment not mine.”

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Stuhec’s two other wins this season were in downhill, both in Lake Louise.

But prior to this year, she had finished only twice in the top five with a best of fourth in super-G three years ago.

She changed her skis this summer, and her training.

“Most of the summer I spent with the men’s speed team in Slovenia,” Stuhec said. “I tried to catch them every day and I was really building my confidence.”

Maze is Slovenia’s most famed skier and Stuhec never really became close with her.

“Honestly, I cannot say we are really friends,” Stuhec said. “Because she was most of the time separate from us, working alone.”

Gisin, meanwhile, clinched her first career podium. Her previous best was sixth last weekend in slalom in Sestriere.

The Swiss skier was the younger sister of Dominique Gisin, who shared the 2014 Olympic downhill title with Maze.

Big sister was watching from the bottom of the slope and burst into tears.

“She is helping me through so much,” said Michelle Gisin, whose older brother Marc Gisin is a World Cup racer with a career best of fifth in downhill in January.

Defending overall World Cup champion Lara Gut of Switzerland had a bad day, however.

Sixth after the downhill run, she went off course midway through the slalom run.

“I know what (went wrong),” Gut said. “But I don’t think it’s the right place to explain.”

Gut was third in the overall standings, 14 points behind Goggia and 105 behind Shiffrin.

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Shiffrin skipped Val d’Isere and will return on Tuesday for the giant slalom in the nearby French Alpine resort of Courchevel.

Gut will look to score heavily on Saturday in the downhill and on Sunday in a super-G.