LAKE LOUISE, Alberta — Thrilled as she was to be racing again, Lindsey Vonn began Friday hoping for a victory, no matter how unrealistic that might have been 10 months after major knee surgery and less than three weeks after partially re-tearing a ligament.
As it turned out, she felt some jitters in her first competition since a February fall and skied conservatively by her standards, finishing 40th of 60 starters in a World Cup downhill.
“I’m always a positive thinker. I try to look on the bright side of everything, and I was really optimistic that I could come down and just — first race, right out of the blocks — win, and it was wishful thinking. But might as well shoot for the best, you know?” Vonn said.
“I was just too nervous. I was really tight, and I skied that way. I skied tight,” she explained. “I wasn’t in a really deep tuck. I wasn’t pushing the line where I could have. And I just kind of skied it, and that’s not my style. That’s not how I attack a race.”
Still, the reigning Olympic downhill gold medalist took an important step in preparation for the Sochi Games by racing for the first time since her high-speed crash at the world championships tore two ligaments in her right knee and broke a bone in that leg.
A fall during practice Nov. 19 in Colorado delayed her comeback.
The American finished in 1 minute, 59.22 seconds Friday, more than three seconds behind friend and rival Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany, who covered the course in 1:56.03 for her first victory of the season. Hoefl-Riesch was the 2011 overall World Cup champion and a double gold medalist at the 2010 Olympics.
“I was expecting a lot more, but that’s just who I am,” Vonn said. “I hope to win every race I enter. It’s just not that simple.”
Marianne Kaufmann-Abderhalden of Switzerland was second in 1:56.73, with Elena Fanchini of Italy third in 1:57.23. Lara Gut of Switzerland, who began the day leading the overall standings, was 10th.
Vonn missed the previous 14 World Cup races, including the first five this season. She had been aiming to return to action last week at Beaver Creek, Colo., not far from her hometown of Vail, but she scrapped those plans after damaging her repaired ACL in last month’s crash.
Still, she was pleased to make her comeback at Lake Louise, where she entered Friday with a seven-race winning streak dating to 2010. That included three-victory sweeps in 2011 and 2012, and her 14 career wins at a place some have nicknamed “Lake Lindsey” are a World Cup record for one skier at any venue.
Indeed, over the 12 previous Lake Louise races, Vonn never placed lower than second, with nine victories and three runner-up finishes.
But what truly mattered on this day was that Vonn was wearing a race bib, in the starting gate, and speeding down the hill at all, her right knee protected by a brace under her suit.
“It’s been a long time,” she said.
Vonn said she will enter Saturday’s downhill and Sunday’s super-G.
“To be honest, we didn’t expect her to win this race. A lot of people do, just because she has so many times,” U.S. Ski Team women’s speed coach Chip White said. “But with all she’s been through, we’re just happy to see her back in the mix, and I think this is where we build from.”
“I was expecting a lot more, but that’s just who I am. I hope to win every race I enter. It’s just not that simple.”