January 21, 2015

KITZBUEHEL, Austria (AP) On Saturday, Hannes Reichelt will only focus on winning one of the most important races of the World Cup season.

A year ago, the Austrian skier was balancing between winning the downhill in Kitzbuehel and suffering a potentially career-ending injury.

Reichelt triumphed on the Streif course despite a herniated disk, which became so acute during the race that he needed surgery two days later and ended up missing the Sochi Olympics.

Having recovered from his back problems, Reichelt won the downhill in Wengen last Sunday.

He can now become the first skier since Switzerland's Didier Defago in 2009 to win both classic races within a week, and the first Austrian since Peter Wirnsberger in 1986 to win Kitzbuehel twice in a row.

Over 40,000 fans are expected for Saturday's race, which is the pinnacle of the season for ski-mad Austria.

''In July people were still congratulating me on the win from January. That doesn't happen with any other victory,'' the 34-year-old Reichelt said Wednesday, adding he's aware of the expectations from his home crowd.

''I feel no pressure anymore that I must win Kitzbuehel. I am now in the position that I want to win it,'' he said. ''Winning in Wengen has made me a bit more relaxed. I am full of confidence and that makes racing a little easier.''

Twelve months ago, nothing was easy.

Reichelt had been skiing all season with an aching back, and his condition worsened few weeks before the Olympics in February.

The pain was almost unbearable on the morning of the downhill in Kitzbuehel, and Reichelt considered pulling out of the race shortly before the start.

But only briefly.

''You don't leave the start gate of the Streif backward,'' he said. ''Somehow, I managed to get it out of my mind.''

Reichelt sped down the demanding 3.3-kilometer course and finished ahead of pre-race favorites Aksel Lund Svindal and Bode Miller to become the first Austrian win on the Streif since Michael Walchhofer's triumph in 2006.

In the finish area, however, Reichelt could barely stand straight up.

''I don't want to talk too much about my back problems,'' he told reporters. ''If you win a race, it can't be too bad.''

However, it was far worse than he thought.

Reichelt even competed in a super-G the following day - and placed 68th - but he couldn't neglect the pain any longer.

He underwent surgery the day after and had to end his season prematurely.

Only months later, doctors told him how dangerous skiing on with his injury really had been.

''I have been very, very lucky nothing happened,'' Reichelt said. ''Due to the herniated disk, I could have easily lost control of my right leg while racing at 130 kph.''

Reichelt has returned without any pain in his back, and apart from specific mobility exercises and additional physiotherapy, his training schedule is back to normal.

''I am totally free of pain now, that's nice,'' he said.

A former giant slalom and super-G specialist, Reichelt developed into a top downhill racer in the same year Walchhofer retired - 2011.

Reichelt started the race in Kitzbuehel that year with bib 44 but ended the race in 19th.

''That was the first step to becoming a real downhill racer,'' he said.

Having competed in the discipline since 2005, Reichelt got his first downhill podium at Lake Louise, Alberta in November 2011, and his first win - shared with Dominik Paris - in Bormio, Italy, 13 months later.

Since the 2011-12 season, Reichelt has been on the podium 12 times in 30 downhills, including three wins.

And he's eager for more, not just in Kitzbuehel but also at next month's world championships in Beaver Creek, Colorado.

''I am not yet thinking about the worlds,'' Reichelt said. ''But there is still room in my trophy cabinet and I am hungry for more.''

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