Hoefl-Riesch seeking Olympic downhill boost
Austria's Maria Hoefl Riesch competes during the World Cup women's downhill training session in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, on January 16, 2014 - by Giuseppe Cacace
Hoefl-Riesch is a gold medal contender at the Sochi Games and topped the first of two training sessions on Thursday ahead of bidding to win the downhill in Cortina for the second time in her career.
The German completed the 2.66km-long Tofane course in a time of 1min 39.31sec with Slovenia's Tina Maze, last season's overall World Cup champion, second, just .01sec behind.
Anna Fenninger of Austria, second to Hoefl-Riesch in the overall World Cup standings, was third at 0.69 with Swiss Fabienne Suter fourth at 0.96.
The Olympics begin in three weeks time and, with reigning downhill champion Lindsey Vonn sidelined due to recent knee troubles, Hoefl-Riesch has a great chance to make up for her disappointing eighth-place finish at the Vancouver Games four years ago.
The 29-year-old may have made amends by winning double gold in the slalom and combined at the 2010 Games, but the downhill remains the sport's most prestigious event -- and this season Hoefl-Riesch has been blazing a trail.
She has won two World Cup downhills this season and leads the discipline standings as well as the overall race for the crystal globe won by Maze last season.
A third downhill win would also allow her to equal her record from the 2010/11 season.
Hoefl-Riesch won at Cortina in 2011 but failed to finish on the podium last year. However, she was in a positive mood about her chances on Saturday.
"For a first training, it was pretty good. I found a good line. My skis are fast, I managed to carry some speed in all sections of the course," she said.
"The snow isn't so hard, and we have to ski smooth, to be delicate on the edges. I'll try to do the same or even better on Saturday."
A second downhill training session is scheduled for Friday morning, when the field are likely to step up a gear in a bid to fine-tune equipment and find their optimal line for Saturday's race.
Hoefl-Riesch's main challengers include Maze, Fenninger, Suter and Austrian Elisabeth Goergl.
Goergl, who finished over one second behind Hoefl-Riesch on Thursday, is bidding to become the first Austrian to win back-to-back downhills since Renate Goetschl seven years ago.
She won the last women's downhill at Altenmarkt/Zauchensee last week.
The weekend concludes with a women's super-G on Sunday although the field are set to remain in Cortina all week after a decision by officials to stage next weekend's World Cup event, initially set for Garmisch, at the Italian Dolomite resort due to a lack of snow at the German venue.