ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — It’s easy to spot Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec in her lime green speed suit.
Almost as easy is finding her name in the standings — just look near the top.
On skis waxed, tuned and maintained by her mom, Stuhec is in the midst of a breakout season that has her on the verge of clinching the downhill and super-G titles this week at the World Cup Finals.
The 26-year-old will certainly be one of the skiers to watch heading into the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, possibly even the one to give four-time overall World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn a strong push in the speed events.
All this success, though, has caught even Stuhec by surprise.
“I knew I was skiing good and capable of a lot of things. But it’s quite more than I expected,” said Stuhec, who turned in the second-fastest downhill training run Monday, 0.14 seconds behind the time posted by Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany. “After it started to happen, I was just really enjoying it, having fun skiing, getting more and more confident of myself and my skiing. I like it.”
Although she’s been on the World Cup circuit for quite some time, she’s uncovered another gear this season. She also capitalized on Vonn’s early absence — along with Swiss skier Lara Gut‘s season-ending knee injury — to appear on the podium 11 times, including six wins.
Stuhec is 97 points in front of Italy’s Sofia Goggia in the season-long downhill title race with only Wednesday’s competition remaining. Things are a little tighter in the super-G race, with Stuhec holding a scant 15-point advantage over Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein.
“No pressure. Not at all,” Stuhec said. “I was really looking forward to getting here.”
She’s a fan of this hill, too, with its grippy and spring-like conditions.
“The snow is perfect,” said Stuhec, who trails American Mikaela Shiffrin by a nearly insurmountable 378 points in the overall race. “I hope we will get a little bit of sun over the next days. It will be fun.”
Really, it’s not as if she arrived out of nowhere. Stuhec won a super-G title at the 2008 World Junior Championships. But she’s been hampered over her career by a right knee that’s required five surgeries.
She ultimately lost funding on the Slovenian ski team, forcing her to set up her own team. Now traveling the World Cup circuit with her own coach and her mother, Darja Crnko, who prepares her skis, Stuhec has found success. There have been accounts of her mom’s willingness to mortgage their house in order to keep her career going.
Asked if that was true, she just smiled.
“Almost,” said Stuhec, who switched skis this season. “We did struggle a lot before. Now, it’s way easier. I’m not happy that it happened, but I learned a lot. I learned a lot about myself, about people around me. I think I wouldn’t be the same as I am today if nothing would’ve happened.”
Recently, Stuhec captured the downhill title at the world championships in Switzerland. By doing so, she kept the title in the Slovenian family as she succeeded the 2015 World downhill winner, Tina Maze, who’s now retired.
Stuhec said she doesn’t stay in contact much with Maze.
“It’s been interesting, her team compared to Tina’s team. They did things a lot differently,” said Vonn, dealing with a cold as she finished sixth in the training run Monday. “I was always interested to see what she did. She has her mother as her technician. It’s a really interesting dynamic and seems to work really well for her. It’s nice to see her having such a successful season.”
Especially with Winter Games around the corner. At the World Cup race on the Olympic course earlier this month, Stuhec finished third in the super-G and third in the downhill. She also has Olympic experience, taking 10th in the downhill at the 2014 Sochi Games and 13th in the super-G.
“I never give up,” Stuhec said, “no matter how hard it was.”
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