SELVA DI VAL GARDENA, Italy (AP) — It was just about a year ago when Ilka Stuhec gave up on her dream of competing at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Coming off a career season that included a gold medal in the downhill at the world championships and the season-long World Cup downhill title, Stuhec rushed back on to snow two months after knee surgery.
“I said I really want to ski in 2017, so I went Dec. 31,” Stuhec said. “Because there was still some part of me that believed I could make the Olympics. But I would just go there without confidence, without training, not really trusting the knee. So I let that one go really soon.
“It hurt a lot,” Stuhec added of her New Year’s Eve return to snow.
The Slovenian skier quickly switched her focus to this season and her patience paid off when she won a World Cup downhill on Tuesday for the first victory of her comeback.
Stuhec finished 0.14 seconds ahead of Nicol Delago, who grew up alongside the Saslong course in the Italian Dolomites. Ramona Siebenhofer of Austria came third, 0.51 behind.
“It’s really emotional because it’s been a very, very long time since I won,” Stuhec said. “And over the last year a lot of things were very different than I was planning.”
Stuhec missed all of last season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during a crash while training on the glacier in Pitztal, Austria.
She watched the Olympics in February from home — “I was the crazy fan waking up at three in the morning” — and wasn’t quite satisfied with her initial results this season, cracking the top 10 only once in her opening four races.
“I had very high goals when I started racing again,” she said. “But that also meant that I put a lot of pressure on myself, which didn’t come out that well and I thought, ‘OK this not going to go so well.’ So I just need to focus on the moment, ski the way I know and have fun and not think about how fast it’s going to be.”
While Stuhec wasn’t perfect on Tuesday, she was unbeatable on the Saslong course, which is hosting women’s World Cup races for the first time — despite being a classic stop on the men’s circuit for a half-century.
The course was shortened for the women and many of the technical sections were left out, including the camel bump jumps — prompting some racers to complain that it wasn’t challenging enough.
“I liked it a lot from the first (training) run,” Stuhec said. “In the end it’s still downhill, which is never easy, even if it maybe looks like that sometimes.”
A super-G race is scheduled for Wednesday on the Saslong.
The races were originally scheduled for Val d’Isere over the weekend but were moved to Val Gardena because of a lack of snow in the French resort.
The switch perfectly suited Delago, who cracked the top 10 only twice in nearly 40 previous World Cup races.
“I live up there,” Delago said, gesturing up the hill. “It’s a course that has always been part of my life. I used to come here after school and go down these runs all the time.
“Just racing at home for me was already incredible and now I can’t believe this,” Delago said as she was joined in the finish area by her family and dog. “I felt at home right from the start. I heard all the fans cheering for me.”
Nicole Schmidhofer, the Austrian who won the opening two downhills of the season, finished 10th. She still leads the downhill standings by 68 points ahead of Stuhec.
Skier-snowboarder Ester Ledecka, who led the second training session , finished 29th following a series of errors in her run.
Overall World Cup leader Mikaela Shiffrin is sitting out the races to rest up for a big block of upcoming technical events — her specialty.
Also missing are Lindsey Vonn and Olympic downhill gold medalist Sofia Goggia, who are out injured until at least January.
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