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Hoefl-Riesch ready to step into Vonn's shoes

Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany celebrates on the podium after winning the women's FIS World Cup Downhill race in Cortina D'Ampezzo January 24
Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany celebrates on the podium after winning the women's FIS World Cup Downhill race in Cortina D'Ampezzo January 24

By Patrick Lang

CORTINA D'AMPEZZO, Italy (Reuters) - With her third downhill victory of the season at Cortina d'Ampezzo on Friday, Maria Hoefl-Riesch has emerged as favorite to take over from injured arch-rival and friend Lindsey Vonn as Olympic champion.

"At the moment I don't think too much about Sochi. The Olympics is the biggest goal, but also the World Cup and it goes together," the German all-rounder said.

"You need good results in the World Cup to have the confidence for the Olympics," added Hoefl-Riesch, who had already won a Super at the Italian resort in 2008 and a downhill in 2011.

The 2011 overall World Cup champion upstaged Liechtenstein Tina Weirather by 0.31 seconds while Austrian Nicole Schmidhofer was third 0.75 adrift.

With the Sochi Winter Games two weeks away, the 29-year-old from Garmisch-Partenkirchen said she felt no pressure, having already achieved so much in her career.

"I already said it could my last season and I've already achieved all my goals. All I have no-one can take away. The easier and the cooler I can be, the better it works," she said.

Slalom and super-combined gold-medalist in Vancouver four years ago, she knows exactly what to expect at Olympic level.

"You need to be confident. Everything must fit you on that day, the course setting, the snow condition, your form on that day. You also need a little bit of luck.

"But you must do everything for it. I had a tough preparation plan in the summer, like physical training so that I can be strong throughout the season. We'll see how it goes in Sochi," she said.

Hoefl-Riesch trained in the summer with the former physical coach of Austria's Hermann Maier, Heinrich Bergmueller, to improve her power and consistency.

Despite decent results in other disciplines too, her main objective appears to be stepping into Vonn's shoes and taking advantage of the American's injury absence to add downhill honors to her already near-perfect record.

"To win the downhill globe would be such a big success for me. Lindsey won it like six times in a row so it was almost impossible to win it in recent seasons.

"She is missing this year and I'm doing really good. I hope I will get the globe in the end," she said about the only World Cup crown to elude her along with the giant slalom.

In Sochi, as well as in a repeat downhill on the Cortina course on Saturday, the German's main rival could be the up-and-coming Weirather, in the top five of every speed event she has entered this season.

Olympic gold would be especially meaningful for Weirather, 40 years after her mother Hanni Wenzel's first world title in St Moritz and 34 years after her two Olympic golds at Lake Placid.

(Editing by Rex Gowar)

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