Weirather follows in family's Olympic tradition

GRAHAM DUNBAR AP Sports Writer Published:

ST. MORITZ, Switzerland (AP) -- Few athletes at the Sochi Olympics were born to succeed quite like skier Tina Weirather.

Weirather's early-season results on the World Cup circuit, which include two runner-up finishes in downhill, make the 24-year-old racer from Liechtenstein a strong candidate to take Lindsey Vonn's title in the marquee race.

If she does, Weirather will add a chapter to an illustrious family story.

Her mother, Hanni Wenzel, was a two-time gold medalist at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and combined with Tina's uncle, Andreas Wenzel, to win a total of six medals in three Winter Games from 1976-84.

Weirather's family has won two-thirds of all the Olympic medals ever earned by Liechtenstein's athletes, in summer or winter sports, since the tiny principality first sent teams in 1936.

In addition, her father Harti placed ninth in the Lake Placid downhill representing his native Austria.

Weirather told The Associated Press in a recent interview that growing up in a family of Olympians, world champions and overall World Cup winners was "just normal for me."

"I don't know it any different because I grew up like that," she said. "I don't know how it is to have other parents and that's why I don't have a problem with it."

Weirather was born in 1989, nine years after her mother's dominating display in Lake Placid -- gold in slalom and giant slalom, silver in downhill behind Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell.

When growing up, Weirather said trophies and medals were not prominently displayed in the family home in Planken, but parental advice stays with her.

"Well, they told me that at the Olympics everyone is a little bit more nervous and a little bit different to every other race. It's hard to do the same as you always do when you're successful," said Weirather, who raced far from the spotlight as a 16-year-old at the 2006 Turin Olympics.

Hanni and Andreas Wenzel won medals at the 1980 Olympics -- his was silver in giant slalom -- before completing an astonishing family double: Both were the overall World Cup champions that season.

"The Olympics is like 'Today is the day,' and I think that is more pressure than you have when it's about the overall," said Weirather, who leads the overall standings.

Reaching new peaks at 24 is "kind of surprising" to her this season, though injuries slowed the long expected rise of the former junior world champion.

Many skiers joke that it takes at least one serious injury before a racer has a true Alpine career. Even so, it hardly seemed fair that Weirather endured four ruptured ACLs before her 21st birthday. Her right knee has blown out three times and the most recent was the worst.

In January 2010, three weeks before she was due to arrive at the Vancouver Olympics, Weirather crashed out of the World Cup downhill in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.

"I knew from the first moment that it was broken and it was the third time in the same knee so you never know how that turns out and if it is ever going to be good again," she said, calmly recalling such a difficult period.

"There were a lot of bad days where I thought that I won't make it, where I thought it's impossible for me to ever get where I am now."

The comeback was signaled in December 2011 when, wearing bib No. 40, Weirather finished second to Lindsey Vonn in a downhill in Lake Louise, Canada. Two more podium finishes followed and she was runner-up to Vonn in the season-long downhill standings.

Her progress slowed again last season after sustaining a shin injury -- similar to one Vonn had in Vancouver -- back in Lake Louise.

"The shin is like the part where you feel the snow and the ski, and you get a lot of pressure on the shin. When that part hurts you just can't ski fast," Weirather said. "I just tried really, really hard and it just didn't work out. That was tough."

Still, she broke through in March with a first World Cup race win, in a super-G in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

Her mother was there to see that victory, and again for the next one -- on her 57th birthday this month -- in St. Moritz in super-G.

Hanni Wenzel and Harti Weirather, who run an international sports marketing business from Planken, would seem to be lucky charms for their daughter. Yet she plans for them to stay away from the Olympic course, where she finished fourth in a World Cup downhill in February 2012.

"No, they won't come," Weirather said. "I thought it's better when I do my thing all year and that's what I do in Sochi, too."