SCHLADMING, Austria - France's Marion Rolland picked the biggest race of the season to post her first career victory. For the U.S. team, Sunday's race at the world championships was the first downhill this season without an American on the podium.
Sure, Lindsey Vonn's absence was a major factor, but three of the four Americans who raced had also posted podium results in downhill this season. And the other American was none other than Julia Mancuso, the most decorated female U.S. skier in history at major championships with eight medals, who finished fifth.
"This team is always striving for podiums so we're a little disappointed," U.S. speed coach Chip White said. "This was one day and all the cards didn't fall the way we wanted them to but it's not the end of the world. We still have a lot of the season left. We're still contenders for a globe in downhill and still trying to maintain the status of best downhill team in the world."
Rolland, who is yet to win a World Cup race after 15 top-10 finishes in downhill, charged down the icy and bumpy 1.9-mileStreicher course in 1 minute, 50.00 seconds.
Nadia Fanchini of Italy finished 0.16 behind to take the silver medal and put years of injury misery behind her, and Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, who won the super-combined title Friday, was 0.70 back in third.
The 30-year-old Rolland was sidelined with injuries several times during her career, and saw the world title as a reward for fighting back.
"This is life, you have to believe to reach your goals one day," said Rolland, who fell four seconds into her run in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics downhill. "I wanted this medal today."
Mancuso may have finished on the podium if she hadn't skied a bit wide on a turn midway down.
"I got a little knocked by the terrain," said Mancuso, who has struggled with equipment and ski technician changes this season. "I don't have 100 percent confidence yet in downhill. I ski with a really solid position but I don't have the next (gear) to want to go faster and want to try and win. ... I still seem to hold back a little."
Still, it was Mancuso's best downhill result of the season.
"Things are going in the right direction," said the Californian, who won a bronze medal in the super-G that opened the championships, a race that saw Vonn knocked out for the rest of the season with right knee and leg injuries.
The next American was Stacey Cook in sixth place.
Cook finished twice behind Vonn in Lake Louise at the start of this season and is also second to Vonn in the downhill standings. On a course that suited her, Cook was on pace to finish third at the final checkpoint but couldn't hold her line as fatigue became a factor in one of the longest downhills that women race.
Still, it was Cook's best performance at a major championship.
"It's not bad but it's not what I wanted," Cook said. "I really was in a good place to be on the podium today and I just wasn't quite all there. I know I'm fast and I know that I had fast sections today. I just need to figure out how to put it all together. I'm just getting more and more experience and getting a little faster each world championships and I know at some point it's going to come together."
The other Americans, Leanne Smith and Alice McKennis, finished 12th and 17th, respectively.
Rolland also posted her only two career World Cup podium results on this course during last season's World Cup finals. She was one of the few skiers able to carry their speed from the slow middle section of the course - which even included an uphill stretch - into the finish.
"Even if the sensation under your skis was not good, you have to go on and push it to the finish line," Rolland said.
Fanchini, who won bronze in downhill at the 2009 worlds, was the second starter and won every section except the first, when she was 27th.
"I'm not so great on the flats so I just tried to contain the damages, then the further down I went the more time I made up," Fanchini said.
Fanchini won bronze in downhill at the 2009 worlds in Val d'Isere but then injured both her knees in a crash in St. Moritz two weeks before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. As she was still working her way back, she tore the ACL in her left knee again while checking the course as a forerunner ahead of a race in Cortina d'Ampezzo in January 2011.
"This is my first year back, so I'm ecstatic," Fanchini said. "Sometimes I still think about that crash in St. Moritz when I see a gate coming at me."
Fanchni came down with the No. 2 bib and had a hard time watching when several other skiers crashed.
Stefanie Moser, the third starter, flew into the safety netting at 68 mph. The Austrian's right ski came off after the binding broke on one of the icy bumps. She got up quickly and appeared unhurt.
Dominique Gisin of Switzerland also slammed into the netting at high speed but avoided injury.
"I nearly wanted to cry when I saw that," Fanchini said. "I was really happy to see her on her feet afterward."
Nadia's older sister Elena Fanchini, who won silver in the 2005 worlds downhill in Bormio, finished ninth.
Next up is the men's super-combined Monday with Ted Ligety among the favorites.