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Maria Riesch wins Alpine World Cup overall title

Lindsey Vonn of U.S. leaves the finish area after completing the first run of an alpine ski, women's World Cup slalom in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, Friday, March 18, 2011.

Lindsey Vonn of U.S. leaves the finish area after completing the first run of an alpine ski, women's World Cup slalom in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, Friday, March 18, 2011. Photo by The Associated Press.

Maria Riesch ended Lindsey Vonn's three-year reign as queen of Alpine skiing on Saturday, winning the World Cup overall title after the final race was canceled.

The best friends and rivals were set for a dramatic showdown in the season-ending giant slalom with Germany's Riesch holding a three-point lead. But World Cup race officials ruled the course unfit after days of rain, wet snow and warm temperatures.

"I'm really, really happy finally to have won," said Riesch, the Olympic champion who became the world's best all-around women racer after being runner-up to her American rival for the past two seasons.

"I had such a great season. Of course, Lindsey would also have deserved it but she won it the last three years and now it is my turn — finally."

In their thrilling season-long duel, Riesch would have lost had she been 0.02 seconds slower in the decisive slalom race on Friday.

"It was a really tight race. At the end you need some luck as well and I had this luck," said the 26-year-old German.

The cancellation was announced at 7.20 a.m. local time, and Riesch heard the news while preparing to travel to the course.

"I was in front of the hotel. Some people at the balcony said, 'Yeah, it's officially canceled.' I didn't believe at first," she said. "We were crying, full of happiness."

The decision to cancel — denying Vonn a last chance to retain her title — was not taken lightly, International Ski Federation spokeswoman Riikka Rakic said

"It's not skiable. Working with these kind of snow conditions, we don't have any tools that would make it a fair race," Rakic told The Associated Press by telephone. "All the efforts have been undertaken, but it was not quite enough."

The final points tally was 1,728-1,725 in Riesch's favor after the pair competed in 33 races spread over five months. The lead changed hands in the last two completed races this week.

Riesch led for most of the season and arrived at Lenzerheide with a 23-point advantage.

Vonn struck back in the downhill Wednesday, taking a 27-point lead by placing fourth as Riesch faded and failed to score in 17th place.

The Minnesota native hoped to build her lead in one of her strongest events, a super-G race, on Thursday but it was a casualty of poor weather and snow conditions.

In Friday's slalom, Riesch regained the lead by finishing fourth while Vonn managed only 13th when she lost time on the bottom section of her second run.

A winner-take-all race was expected Saturday in the giant slalom that is the weakest event for both women.

But the warm winter weather in Europe finally dictated that Riesch would take the title without putting her skis on.

The tiny winning margin was the smallest since Anja Paerson of Sweden beat Croatia's Janica Kostelic by three points in 2005 after a climactic final GS at Lenzerheide.

Riesch is the third German woman to be overall champion, following Rosi Mittermaier in 1976 and Katja Seizinger in 1996 and '98.

She had been regarded as a champion in the making since winning gold medals at four straight junior world championships from 2001-04.

Riesch and Vonn forged their friendship at those events, despite the German edging the American for downhill gold in 2004.

Riesch also beat Vonn to make a mark on the World Cup circuit, winning three races in 2004 to finish third overall.

However, knee injuries wrecked Riesch's next two seasons. When she returned to top form in 2008, Vonn had surged ahead to win the first of her three giant crystal globe trophies.

Riesch then matched Vonn by taking a total of three gold medals from the 2009 worlds and 2010 Olympics, winning the slalom and super-combined at Vancouver.

Riesch appeared ready to threaten Vonn's domination last December when winning both downhill races at Lake Louise, Canada, where her great rival had previously been near-unbeatable.

"I think the difference was that I was closer in speed events. That was my plan," Riesch said. "I was winning three downhills and that was really important."

Consistent in all events, Riesch outpointed Vonn overall despite winning fewer races — six to Vonn's eight — and not winning any of the five World Cup discipline titles.

Vonn was top in downhill, super-G and super-combined.

Saturday's cancellation gave the giant slalom title to Riesch's German teammate, Olympic champion Viktoria Rebensburg.

The men's slalom on the same slope began after a delayed start, taking the 10 a.m. slot originally held by the women.

Overall champion Ivica Kostelic was the first to race and was almost invisible to television viewers beneath a shroud of fog and snow.

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