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Look out for Lindsey Vonn

In Turin, US skiier Vonn took a spill and settled for a consolation prize. This time the "Vonntourage" goes for gold.

Lindsey Vonn of the U.S. skis on her way to clock the fastest time in the women's Alpine Skiing World Cup Super G race in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Jan. 31, 2010. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

BOSTON — It was one of those horrific and, at the same time, mesmerizing sports moments. You wanted to look away, yet you couldn’t take your eyes off Lindsey Vonn as she flew out of control, crash-landed on her back and went spinning helplessly down the mountain — until she finally lay there in the snow, barely moving and, quite possibly, broken.

Vonn, then 21 and America’s most promising women Alpine racer, had been skiing a test run on the downhill course at the 2006 Turin Olympics, barreling alone at more than 60 miles per hour, when she crashed. As the rescue helicopter swooped onto the mountain, Vonn believed her Olympics was over and feared — if her back was broken — that her career might be finished too.

But there was good news at the hospital. Though every part of Vonn’s body ached, nothing was broken. While her mother was consoling her over the disappointment and, inevitably, their thoughts began gravitating to four years ahead and the next Olympics in Vancouver, Vonn got a visit and an earful from Picabo Street.

Street, a former American ski champion and a mentor to Vonn, wasn’t wasting too much sympathy on the injured youngster. Sure she hurt, Street said, but if she could walk, she could ski. Why didn’t she get out of bed, get out of the hospital and climb back up that mountain? “A real champion,” Street assured her, “would get up and race.”

So less than 48 hours after her “agony of defeat” spill, Vonn left the hospital for the starting gate at the downhill competition. No fairytale ending awaited her there. She was stiff and in considerable pain, incapable of a miracle run. Still, Vonn’s eighth-place finish was, unmistakably, a triumph of the heart.

The American ski team would be embarrassed in Turin by the lackluster efforts of its biggest star, reigning World Cup champion Bode Miller. Miller not only failed to win a medal, but was disqualified in three of his five races. Far worse, he appeared to put more effort into the nightly partying than the daily skiing. For her gritty effort, Vonn found herself cast as the anti-Bode and was honored with the U.S. team’s Olympic Spirit Award.

While the recognition of her courage was gratifying, Vonn hoped never again to have to settle for a consolation prize. She viewed the dual disappointments in Turin — Miller’s and hers — as invaluable lessons. She needed to boost her work ethic — to bring nothing less to than total commitment to her sport — if she hoped for a better result at the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Said Vonn: “I don’t want to get to the bottom of the hill and say, ‘I could have done better.’”