Snow queen: USA's Mikaela Shiffrin / © AFP/File
American star Mikaela Shiffrin is aiming to add to her seven world championship medals when she takes to the snow in four events in Cortina d'Ampezzo, bereft of fans amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The world champs in the swanky Italian resort, nestled up among the Dolomites, might not even have gone ahead had the organisers had their way.
With the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, they asked in May last year for a postponement until 2022, but that was denied and the championships are going ahead with no fans and following strict health protocols.
"Since the start of the season, the idea was to put the focus on the worlds," said French ski federation head Michel Vion.
"The championships are FIS' (international ski federation) biggest product, sporting, media and economic-wise, the biggest after the Olympic Games."
In the absence of now-retired US teammate Lindsey Vonn, 25-year-old Shiffrin will bring her star talent in a bid to defend her super-G world title, even though she hasn't raced in the discipline for more than a year.
The five-time world gold medallist will compete in Monday's alpine combined (comprising a super-G and a slalom) and the super-G 24 hours later before taking on the giant slalom on February 18 and the slalom, which she has won at the last four worlds, on the penultimate day of competition.
"I'm really going into the speed section of the world champs with the intention of almost trying to take it as an opportunity for training," said the understated Shiffrin, a three-time World Cup overall champion.
Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami, who made her name as a teenager by winning two world silvers back in Val d'Isere in 2009, has had a resurgence in form and has won the last four World Cup super-G races.
"Obviously it's a race and it's the world championships so I'll try to ski as fast as I can, and I think I'll be able to get a pretty good result," said Shiffrin, who has won three World Cup overall titles but has not taken part in a speed race (downhill or super-G) since she took the honours at the Bansko super-G in January last year.
"But when you look at what Lara's been able to do the last few races, I have no guarantee that it's going to stack up or that's going to be good enough to defend my super-G title."
The women's races have been robbed of another star talent who was also showing the form of her life.
Italian Sofia Goggia, the Olympic downhill champion who had won four of the five World Cup downhills thus far, sustained a season-ending knee injury.
It deprives the host nation of a true medal hope, something now handed to teammates Martina Bassino and Federica Brignone.
Italian hopes among the male skiers will lie with veteran Dominik Paris, who has made a remarkable return to form after a serious knee ligament injury in Kitzbuehel last year.
The 31-year-old won the downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen on Friday, edging ever-present Swiss Beat Feuz and Austria's double Olympic gold medallist Matthias Mayer.
Mayer's teammate Vincent Kriechmayer won Saturday's super-G in the German resort, the last before Cortina.
"It was a good race and I feel very good in super-G," said Kriechmayr, who won bronze in downhill and silver in super-G at the 2019 world championships in Are, Sweden, but has yet to win a gold at either the worlds or Olympics.
"But even if I am doing well at the moment, I am not the only favourite of the Worlds.
"Cortina is another piste, another day, we'll have to put everything back in place."