Uncertainty will reign supreme for the world's best women skiers as they head into Wednesday's downhill final at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Organizers were forced to cancel the final training session for the event on Tuesday, as temperatures were higher than expected and the terrain proved untenable. As noted by The Associated Press (via ABC News), ruts left over from this week's super-combined competition needed to be repaired—especially toward the bottom of the course.
This leaves the skiers in the field with just four instead of the typical five practice runs.
Luckily, most of the contenders have a good idea of how this will play out. Lindsey Vonn's absence from Sochi due to injury cracked the downhill field wide open, as the American star was widely expected to run away with the competition. Without Vonn, German and super-combined winner Maria Hoefl-Riesch will have a good chance, as will American Julia Mancuso, who finished second behind Vonn in Vancouver.
But there is an eclectic field here in Russia, one that won't have any fear on the slopes. And these women qualified for the Olympics for a reason. They are very, very good at skiing very, very fast down a sheet of snow.
We'll have to watch and see how this event plays out. With that in mind, let's check out how you can watch Wednesday's downhill competition and predict the medalists.
Women's Downhill Viewing Info
Date: Feb. 12
Time: 2 a.m. ET
TV: Click here for TV listings
Live Stream: Available on the NBC Olympics website
Gold: Lara Gut (Switzerland)
Gut comes into the downhill hoping to atone for a frustrating run at the super-combined. Heading into her second run, she was just 47 seconds behind Mancuso, with the rest of the field breaking perfectly for an easy medal. Hoefl-Riesch put together a solid lead time, but not an unattainable one for Gut, a Swiss who was exceptional in super-combined events in 2013.
Instead, Gut faltered. She was one of numerous high-profile skiers to disqualify herself early in her run, pulling off the slopes before even putting a medal anywhere near attainability. It was a disappointing performance that left Gut in tears after her run, her coach Hans Flatscher told Graham Dunbar of the AP (via The Charlotte Observer).
Still, the disappointment seemingly turned into motivation. Flatscher noted that his skier was still "really angry ... but after a few hours she was already in focus for the downhill."
The downhill very well could end with glory for Gut. At age 22, she came into Sochi seemingly primed for a run at gold. Gut, who was too injured to compete at the 2010 Games, was considered an up-and-coming threat for Vonn's throne in Vancouver before being ruled out. Now four years older and fully healthy, nearly everyone close to the Swiss thinks she has what it takes.
"She's physically perfect. Technically she improved because she did more work in the summer," Mauro Pini, Gut's former coach, told Dunbar (via The Washington Times). "I think the important point is Lara is not any more a little girl, she's a young lady. She is more mature."
From a purely physical standpoint, I tend to agree. But we'll have to see how she handles the mental spotlight. There is no telling whether it was nerves or merely a mental error that caused her to cough up the chance to medal in the super-combined. If it was the former, another disqualification or a poor run could forbid her contention once more.
If it's the latter, as suspected, Switzerland will be walking away with its third gold in Sochi.
Silver: Julia Mancuso (United States)
Will Mancuso ever get the rightful credit she deserves within United States skiing circles? Vonn is widely considered the most decorated female skier in the country's history, but that entirely depends upon how you judge someone's legacy.
When it comes to World Cup victories, Vonn is unimpeachable. Her 59 is more than eight times Mancuso's piddly total of seven. She consistently ranks as the first- or second-best skier in the world in season standings, dominating the downhill event to the point that she would have been the super-combined favorite just by proxy.
The Olympics are another story entirely. Vonn's only two Olympic medals came in 2010, a gold in the downhill and a bronze in the super-G. Mancuso has twice her American friend and rival's bling. She has medaled in each of the last three Olympics, with her four overall medals being the most for a female skier in U.S. history.
"That kind of stuff has never mattered to me," Mancuso told Bonnie D. Ford of ESPN. "My teammates have been incredible. Lindsey Vonn is a champion and of course has had way more success than I have on the World Cup [59 wins to seven for Mancuso], so it's definitely warranted to give her a lot of credit."
Still, with Vonn injured, Mancuso added to her total in the super-combined. Though one has to surmise she was a little disappointed with bronze considering the lead she held coming in, Mancuso raised her arms in triumph—ever the good sport. Her slalom run was uncharacteristically sloppy at points, as she was unable to let go of the skis at the right time and wound up losing momentum as her run went along.
The first downhill run, on the other hand, was nearly flawless. She had a near half-second lead over Gut going into the slalom, and only the top four competitors were within a second. If past performance is any indicator of future results, Mancuso may add to her 2010 silver with a 2014 gold. I'm taking Gut, but these two are our favorites.
Bronze: Maria Hoefl-Riesch (Germany)
Believe it or not, Hoefl-Riesch is a bit of an underdog coming into the downhill. Though the AP (via Yahoo! Sports) selected her as the favorite to win the downhill, the actual results don't back that up. The German is a menace in slalom competition and has won each of the last two super-combined medals, but the downhill is arguably her worst discipline.
She ran only fifth during the downhill portion of the super-combined and was absent from the podium in Vancouver, finishing eighth. While she has had some success in the event on the world circuit, bronze is the best Hoefl-Riesch has ever done in the World Championships.
Here, then, would likely be the spot where an underdog could slip in. Tina Maze of Slovenia is the best bet to take Hoefl-Riesch's place, as is Leanne Smith, the least-discussed of the American skiers in the field. And there are a number of dark horses who could come completely out of the woodwork to a surprise medal.
Hoefl-Riesch is just performing far too well to predict any of that stuff will happen. She's been brilliant in Sochi—and all season actually. She has tamed her greatest beast with three wins in seven World Cup downhills this season and, if she wins on Wednesday, will tie the women's all-time Alpine Olympic record of four golds.
"I don't think about records so much," said Hoefl-Riesch, per the AP (via ABC News). "If it happens, it's great."
It's a bit of a long shot, but if we've learned anything in Sochi, it's never count Maria Hoefl-Riesch out of any skiing competition.
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