SESTRIERE, Italy - Lindsey Kildow stepped gingerly, awkwardly, off the hill, as though barefoot in the snow. What little she said seemed obvious: "I'm in a lot of pain."

At least the U.S. Ski Team star was able to walk away from this fall, a slide on her backside that eliminated her from the three-run Olympic women's Alpine combined event on a windy, snowy Friday.

"I couldn't go five gates without having to sob and recuperate because my back hurt so bad," said Kildow, airlifted to a Turin hospital Monday after her frightening, tough-to-watch crash in training. "I just can't ski the way I want, so it's really frustrating."

She's hardly the only female skier who feels that way - and that could make for an anticlimactic conclusion to the already-convoluted combined.

A glance at the results after two floodlit slalom legs sure set up a tantalizing story line:

Triple Olympic gold medalist Janica Kostelic of Croatia was second-fastest, and her chief rival, Anja Paerson of Sweden, was No. 4, a mere 0.38 seconds behind.

A head-to-head showdown between the winners of four of the past five World Cup overall titles?

Between two women who respect each other and insist they get along, even if the European media love to portray them as foes off the slopes as well as on?

Not so fast.

After each of her slalom runs, Kostelic bent over, chest heaving, and clutched her knees. Later she said she might be too sick to start Saturday's closing downhill portion of the event - a leg postponed from Friday afternoon because of gusting wind that knocked the first and only skier to the ground.

Kostelic already had skipped the downhill medal race because of a high pulse.

"There's no reason to compete when I'm feeling like this," she said.

That didn't draw a lot of empathy from Paerson's father and coach.

"That's one part of the game," Anders Paerson said. "To not be sick."

If Kostelic does compete, she and Paerson would be the overwhelming favorites. Overnight leader Marlies Schild of Austria, who finished the two runs in 1 minute, 21.22 seconds, fared no better than 17th in a World Cup downhill this season. Her countrywoman, third-place Kathrin Zettel, never has even raced a World Cup downhill.

Then again, the race might not come off - the forecast is for snow and wind, though less severe than Friday, when winter made its first real appearance at Alpine skiing.

That made for a long day of stops and starts on two mountains and forced organizers to rejigger the combined, which normally consists of a downhill followed by two slaloms, all on the same day.

Instead, the opening of the downhill at San Sicario, about a half-hour drive away from Sestriere, was delayed by 75 minutes because of swirling snow and winds approaching 30 mph. Then along came the very first competitor, Nika Fleiss of Croatia, who was tossed around like a rag doll on the course's first big jump and dumped on her back.

She got up and made her way down to the end, but that was all officials needed to see. The downhill was postponed, and everyone made the trek to Sestriere for the slaloms.

While most racers were OK with the decision - "I'm sure they made the best call," said Julia Mancuso of the United States - Kostelic was critical.

"It's kind of stupid what they did," said Kostelic, the defending Olympic champion in the combined, "because it was obvious we couldn't ski in the morning, and they needed one racer to crash."

Her anger was understandable, given the risks inherent in charging down the slick side of a mountain at more than 50 mph - and given all of the accidents so far.

It's those risks that make so impressive Kildow's bid to keep racing at these Olympics after her "Do you believe that?!" accident earlier in the week.

In Friday's second slalom run, Kildow's skis popped out from under her during a tight turn between gates and she slid on her back. Kildow sat up, grimacing, and was helped to the sideline.

Kildow called the fall a potential "blessing in disguise": Instead of racing Saturday, she'll get a chance to rest ahead of Sunday's super-G.

"She's physically beat," U.S. women's speed coach Alex Hoedlmoser said, "and mentally, too."

As Kildow ambled toward shelter, she was asked whether she'll race again at these Olympics.

"I hope so," she said.

Slim U.S. medal hopes in the combined now rest with No. 9 Resi Stiegler, more than 2 seconds off the pace, No. 11 Mancuso - who skied with a tiara and no helmet - and No. 15 Kaylin Richardson.

Richardson grew up with Kildow in Minnesota and figures her friend will get right back in the starting gate.

"She didn't leave anything on hold, she didn't come down slow, regretting anything," Richardson said. "I can't doubt her."

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