LAKE LOUISE, Alberta — Saying she felt “much more like myself” than in her season debut a day earlier, Lindsey Vonn finished 11th in a World Cup downhill Saturday.
The four-time overall World Cup champion and 2010 Olympic downhill gold medalist came down the hill with a far more attacking style in the second race of a comeback from reconstructive surgery on her right knee in February.
“That was much better. A lot more like it,” said Vonn, whose time was 1 minute, 56.35 seconds. “I’m just really happy with the improvements that I made from yesterday. And just in general, my whole body language was different. I was more aggressive and just more confident and comfortable.”
On an afternoon when the temperature at the finish line was below minus-15 degrees, Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany crossed in 1:55.09 to win a second consecutive downhill and take the lead in the overall World Cup standings.
The double gold medalist at the Vancouver Olympics and 2011 overall World Cup champion greeted Vonn as the American headed off the hill, and told her: “At least you can ski. Maybe it gets better.”
Later, at her news conference, Hoefl-Riesch said: “I’m sure that if her knee is holding and she’s getting the confidence back with more skiing that she will be back on fire.”
Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein, who was disqualified Friday for wearing an arm protector over her ski suit, came in second Saturday in 1:55.43. Anna Fenninger of Austria was third in 1:55.56.
Vonn had finished 40th of 60 starters in Friday’s downhill, her first competition since a high-speed crash at the world championships 10 months ago ripped two ligaments in her knee and broke a bone in her lower right leg. After Friday’s debut, Vonn acknowledged feeling jittery and not skiing the way she has on the way to 59 World Cup race wins, including a record 14 at Lake Louise.
“Yesterday, it felt rusty. Just hadn’t done it in so long. I was too nervous,” Vonn said Saturday. “And today, it was much more like myself. I still made mistakes and it wasn’t my best skiing, but it’s a long way from where I was yesterday. Hopefully I can continue to improve.”
It’s been less than three weeks since Vonn’s comeback was delayed because she partially re-tore her surgically repaired ACL in a fall during practice at Copper Mountain, Colo.
On Friday, she joked that she’s “got a little bit of ACL left.”
Aiming to peak for the Sochi Olympics, which start in two months, Vonn will race a super-G on Sunday.
“Just need to continue improving and continue taking steps every day. It doesn’t take me long. I’m a fast learner,” she said, munching on a roasted marshmallow offered by U.S. teammate Stacey Cook. “I need a couple of tries to kind of get the butterflies out and get the nerves to calm down. Now I feel like I’m in a really good place.”
U.S. Ski Team women’s speed coach Chip White liked what he saw from Vonn on Saturday.
“You always have to get that first one under your belt, and today she ... stepped things up and actually did a really good job,” White said.
“I’m really proud of what she did today.”
Right behind Vonn in 12th place was Cook, and Leanne Smith was 17th, part of a significant improvement for the American women, who hadn’t managed better than a 19th-place showing in downhill this season until Saturday. They’re still far behind last season’s pace, when Vonn and Cook finished 1-2 in both Lake Louise downhills and six U.S. racers finished in the top 16 of the final downhill standings.
“As a team, everyone’s head is in the right spot,” said three-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso, who was 21st Saturday. “It’s just the magic hasn’t happened yet.”
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