After a whirlwind offseason, Vonn focused on Cup defense

Lindsey Vonn had quite a summer for a winter sports star.

After becoming the first American woman to win skiing's overall World Cup title in a quarter century, Vonn was nominated for an ESPY, feted at a Formula One race in London, attended a friend's wedding in Jamaica, visited with her husband's family in Norway, stopped by to see her top rival and good friend Maria Riesch in Germany, and somehow fit in training in Austria, Chile and New Zealand.

Now, winter is nearing and it's time to get back to competing.

The season starts Saturday with a woman's giant slalom on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria, followed by a men's GS on Sunday.

"It's crazy how time flies and how quickly the first race comes up. Soelden always feels like it's so early," Vonn said, speaking from Austria in a phone interview Monday with The Associated Press. "But I'm ready. We had a really good training camp in New Zealand and Portillo, Chile."

The ESPYs were certainly the highlight of her whirlwind summer, even though Vonn lost out to WNBA star Candace Parker.

It was the first time a skier was given the nod for the highest female award, and Vonn got to hang out with NFL players Brett Favre and Terrell Owens, tennis star Venus Williams and actor Samuel L. Jackson.

"The ESPYs were really, really cool. That was the first time that I was really acknowledged and recognized in the United States, and that was a really special moment," Vonn said.

"But the coolest part for me is this camp in October here in Europe. There are tons of kids and they all know me and recognize me and they're like chanting my name and screaming at me. I was like, 'Oh my gosh!' It means a lot to have kids looking up to me."

Vonn, who turned 24 on Saturday, won five downhills last season to become only the second American, male or female, to win the World Cup downhill title. She also won a super-combi and was a top contender in super-G to became the first American female overall winner since Tamara McKinney in 1983.

Giant slalom is typically Vonn's weakest event, but this is the first season she has qualified for a top 15 start, guaranteeing she skis on better snow conditions.

"I feel like that could help me out quite a bit," she said. "Usually the starting numbers in Soelden make a huge difference."

Vonn's best GS result last season was sixth in Ofterschwang, Germany. Her top slalom finish, 11th, came in the season-ending race in Bormio, Italy -- to clinch the overall title.

"I've been working pretty hard on both events this summer," Vonn said of the technical races.

In the speed events, everyone will be aiming to beat Vonn.

"I'm definitely not the underdog anymore and I'm not going to be able to slide under the radar," she said. "There's definitely going to be a lot more pressure and a lot more people expecting me to perform. I just got to stick to my own game plan and try to ski the best I can. That's all I can do."

Vonn isn't the only member of the U.S. team defending a World Cup title this season. Olympic combined champion Ted Ligety won the giant slalom crystal globe last season, starting off with a second-place finish in Soelden.

"I've never raced Soelden and not won either the first or second run," Ligety said. "It's been a pretty good hill for me in the two years that I've raced it."

Ligety has been viewed as a future overall contender, but he still has work to do in the speed events.

"It's just a matter of getting the miles in there," he said. "I'm not going to be competing for the podiums there per se, but hopefully I'll be scoring some points more consistently than in previous years."

Ligety is most excited about his progression in slalom, the event he used to specialize in. The U.S. team hired French-born slalom coach Rudi Soulard away from the Swedish team for this season.

"Rudi has a pretty awesome technical eye for things," Ligety said. "He has a lot of new ideas that we really didn't have with the guys before."

Also of note this season, Sarah Schleper returns after more than two years away from the sport.

Schleper blew out her ACL shortly after the 2006 Turin Olympics and spent the entire 2006-07 season in rehab, then took last season off to get married and had a baby boy.