A quartet of US racers will desperately bid to fill the sizeable hole left by the injured Lindsey Vonn when they compete in the women's downhill at the World Ski Championships on Sunday. Vonn, the reigning Olympic champion in the discipline, sustained season-ending knee injuries in a crash in Tuesday's opening super-G, a huge morale blow for the US team she spearheaded.
Teammate Stacey Cook was moved to issue a plea that she and the rest of the team be allowed to focus on racing in the wake of news that Vonn now finds herself in a battle to make the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Cook currently lies second in the World Cup downhill standings, behind Vonn. Three other US racers, Alice McKennis, Leanne Smith and Julia Mancuso, are in the top 11.
Cook twice finished second to Vonn in Lake Louise, while McKennis topped the podium in St Anton, and Smith pitched in with a second place in Val d'Isere and a third place in Cortina. Mancuso bagged a bronze in the super-G here and again impressed in Friday's super-combined, in which she finished eighth despite her weakness in the technical slalom.
But she has a penchant for the Streicher slope and warned that she would come out all guns blazing for the downhill.
"You'll see me on Sunday, I'll be racing and I will be going fast," said Mancuso, the reigning Olympic downhill silver medallist.
"The colour of medal I want is gold. If you want to win you have to have an absolute best run and be on the limit.
"It's going to be really cool to see what our team can do. We've got three other athletes who can be on the podium and not one of us came here for anything other than a medal."
Lining up to bump the US team off course will be Slovenian Tina Maze, who won the super-G and picked up a silver in the super-combined here. Maze has been more consistent than thrilling in downhill on the World Cup circuit this season, her best result second behind Vonn at Cortina last month.
After storming to the super-G title, the Slovenian admitted that she had taken it easy in the first two training runs and had only really unleashed herself in the downhill run of the super-combined.
"I didn't know how fast I could be," said Maze, who finished joint first in the combined downhill.
"I know yesterday (in the second downhill training) I wasn't skiing my best. Today (Friday) was the first day I really attacked the course."
In a stark warning to her rivals, Maze announced that she was eyeing five medals in five disciplines in Schladming.
"I didn't think about that coming here. Two golds were my goal," she said.
"But when people started to talk about five medals, I thought they wouldn't think that if it wasn't possible.
"The doors are open... I will try to do my best in each discipline. It's not easy, I saw that today. But that's the most interesting part: to handle the pressure and just be relaxed and have fun."
Other contenders in the running for a podium push include Austrian Anna Fenninger, who saw her super-combined hopes go up in smoke after straddling a gate in the slalom after impressing in the downhill. Fenninger's teammate Regina Sterz topped both of the two opening training sessions, but insisted that she was not now the favourite.
"Others were always on the podium so I don't see myself as favourite," she said. "I just like this downhill and I'll continue to do what I've been doing up to now."
Other Austrian hopes ride with Andrea Fischbacher, Stefanie Moser and reigning world downhill champion Elisabeth Goergl.