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Ilka Stuhec, downhill world champ, gets first win since ACL tear

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SELVA DI VAL GARDENA, Italy (AP) — It was just about a year ago when Ilka Stuhec gave up on competing at the PyeongChang Olympics.

Coming off a career season that included a downhill world title and the season-long World Cup downhill title, Stuhec rushed back on 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. Her patience paid off when she won a World Cup downhill on Tuesday for the first victory of her comeback.

Stuhec finished .14 of a second ahead of Nicol Delago, who grew up alongside the Saslong course in the Italian Dolomites. Ramona Siebenhofer of Austria came third, 0.51 behind. Full results are here.

“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 tearing her left ACL in an October 2017 preseason training crash 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 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 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 is scheduled for Wednesday on the Saslong.

The races were originally scheduled for Val d’Isere, France, over the weekend but were moved to Val Gardena because of a lack of snow in the French resort.

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, fastest in the second training run, finished 29th following a series of errors.

Overall World Cup leader Mikaela Shiffrin is sitting out the races to rest up for a big block of upcoming technical events — her specialty — beginning Friday and Saturday in Courchevel, France.

Also missing are Lindsey Vonn and Olympic downhill gold medalist Sofia Goggia, who are out injured until at least January.

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MORE: Is Mikaela Shiffrin chasing records? Not exactly

Marc Gisin flown to hospital after World Cup downhill crash

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SELVA DI VAL GARDENA, Italy (AP) — Swiss skier Marc Gisin was hospitalized Saturday following a nasty crash in a World Cup downhill.

The 30-year-old Gisin lost control before a jump midway down the Saslong course on Saturday, flew into the air and landed awkwardly on his side and back.

He was lying motionless on the course before doctors and trainers arrived for assistance.

A rescue helicopter landed on the snow and took off for the hospital in nearby Bolzano with Gisin onboard after he had received treatment for almost a half-hour.

“His condition is stable enough that he can be flown back to Switzerland tonight for further diagnoses,” the Swiss ski team said in a statement. “The exact diagnoses of his injuries we expect Sunday afternoon.”

Gisin’s sisters are both highly successful skiers.

Dominique Gisin shared downhill gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and Michelle Gisin won the combined at the PyeongChang Games in February.

Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde won Saturday’s race by .86 of a second over Austrian Max Franz and .92 over Swiss Beat Feuz. Bryce Bennett, Steven Nyman and Travis Ganong were fourth, fifth and sixth in the best World Cup downhill day for the U.S. in nearly two years.

Full results are here.

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Olympic downhill champ Matthias Mayer airlifted to hospital after crash (video)

Matthias Mayer
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VAL GARDENA, Italy (AP) — In less than a tenth of a second, safety in ski racing took a huge leap forward Saturday.

That was the time it took for a radical air bag system to inflate and apparently prevent Olympic champion Matthias Mayer from serious injury during a nasty crash at the classic Val Gardena World Cup downhill.

Mayer was having a solid run down the Saslong course until the Austrian lost control and spun around, flying down the hill backward in midair.

Before he landed on his right side in an impact that appeared very hard to the naked eye, the air bag vest under his race suit inflated and softened his landing.

“A crash can never be something favorable,” International Ski Federation (FIS) technical expert Gunter Hujara said. “(But) maybe we have seen here he was saved from a spine injury today.”

After receiving medical attention on the slope, Mayer still was airlifted to a hospital in Bolzano.

The Austrian team said late Saturday that Mayer fractured a vertebra and will likely be sidelined for only a month. He will be transferred to Innsbruck for more exams.

“It proved the air bag has an important place in speed skiing,” Austrian winter sports federation director Hans Pum said.

Organizers said Mayer initially had trouble breathing but Hujara spoke to Mayer on the slope and said the breathing problem was not due to the air bag.

It marked the first time that an air bag inflated during a World Cup race.

The system has been in development by Italian manufacturer Dainese and the FIS for years and a handful of athletes only started wearing it during races recently.

“It’s always tough to know what the injury would be like otherwise,” Canadian skier Erik Guay said. “But it’s been quite a few years in development and it’s great that it works when it’s supposed to.”

Mayer had actually already been involved in an air bag crash when he fell during training in October on the Pitztaler glacier, injuring both legs slightly. And teammate Hannes Reichelt had the system activated while inspecting a course for a training run in Copper Mountain, Colo., earlier this season.

Another air bag system developed by French manufacturer In&Motion has also been approved by the FIS, and a similar system has been in use in motorcycle racing since 2009.

In motorcycle racing, the air bag system inflates when the body leaves the bike with a forward rotation. In skiing, the moment when a racer loses complete control varies from one skier to another.

Dainese collected information from skiers by lodging special chips in their back protectors that record speed, angular rotation, acceleration and other information.

“The algorithm describes the moment when the athlete is no longer able to avoid the crash,” Hujara said.

Overall World Cup leader Aksel Lund Svindal has been testing the system in training but doesn’t race with it yet because it’s too bulky under his suit.

“I already broke one downhill suit this year when the zipper popped open,” Svindal said. “With the extra material from the air bag the zipper’s not good enough so I don’t want to stretch it too much.”

Still, Svindal welcomed the initiative.

“That’s what everyone wants to see — a big crash where you stand up and you’re good again and you can wave at the crowd instead of being transported off to hospital,” he said after winning Saturday’s race.

The current air bag protects only the shoulder, neck, back and chest areas. Dainese and the FIS are working on a system to protect the knees and hips, too.

When the air bag inflated for Reichelt during inspection, it prompted concern that it happened when it wasn’t supposed to.

After all, nobody wants to turn into the Michelin Man while hurtling themselves down the mountain at more than 100 kpm (more than 60 mph).

Dainese’s Marco Pastore said the system worked as it was supposed to for Reichelt and prevented a shoulder injury.

Hujara also sought to calm concern over premature inflations, noting that out of eight sensors, five must be over a certain limit for activation to occur.

“The athlete may feel he is still able to (recover) but his body is already in a condition where the computer tells the system, ‘OK, now go,'” Hujara said. “It’s much better that it inflates one time too early than one time too late.”

Another worry has been aerodynamics but wind tunnel testing has shown that it’s just as fast, or perhaps even faster, than skiers’ usual back protectors — which the vests connect to.

Also new in skiing safety: protective long underwear that can’t be cut. That would come in handy for parallel races where skiers often crash into each other and get cut by knife-sharp ski edges.

“It’s on the market,” Hujara said of the textile material. “Athletes know it since four years and every year we remind them, ‘Please use it.'”

While neither the air bag system nor protective underwear are mandatory, the FIS hopes that all World Cup racers will use them.

“We can only advise the athletes and (say), ‘Look, this is what we have. This is what we developed for you. Now think about it,'” Hujara said.

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