Look out for Lindsey Vonn

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.’”

She certainly couldn’t have performed much better in the years leading up to this Olympics. Vonn topped the World Cup circuit in both 2008 and 2009, the first American woman to capture back-to-back titles, and has a healthy lead in the Cup standings again this year. At just 25 years of age — with nine World Cup wins already this season and 31 in her career — she is poised to pass Miller, with 32 victories, as the winningest American ski racer ever.

At 32, Miller has come out of retirement and could find redemption in Vancouver. But it is Vonn who will be the team’s headliner and the focus of its greatest hopes. Unlike the crusty Miller, Vonn is perfectly cast for the role. She is relentlessly sunny — “happy-go-lucky” is her own description — and appears completely comfortable with any added burden.

Still, she got plenty angry and quite feisty when an Austrian coach suggested that her size — Vonn is a striking and sturdy 5’10", 160-plus pounds — accounted for much of her success against smaller rivals. “Ridiculous,” she bristled. “If weight was the key to success in ski racing, everyone would be stuffing their face with food. I give 24 hours a day for my sport.”

Thanks to an unusual spousal partnership, her husband, Thomas, a former ski racer — on the circuit they are the “Vonntourage” — handles all equipment issues, logistics and business matters, allowing Lindsay to concentrate on conditioning and competing. But this year Vonn accepted a large endorsement deal from Head to switch equipment from the Rossignol line that she had used her entire career. She had to devote considerable time early in the season to trying out combinations of new boots and skis to assure her comfort level.

Ranked seventh among women in career World Cup victories, Vonn is already guaranteed a significant legacy in her sport. But she knows that many sports fans, particularly Americans, pay little attention to skiing except during the Olympics. She knows too that, with all the pre-Games hype — she’s featured in NBC’s ad campaign and is Sports Illustrated’s Olympic cover girl — expectations for her Vancouver performance are steadily soaring.

Vonn hasn’t tried to downplay them: if anything she has ratcheted them up with her own impassioned embrace of the Games. “The Olympics are something as a little kid I always dreamed about winning,” Vonn says. “They mean more to me than anything else.”

In skiing, where the mountains often prove fickle as well as treacherous, results can never be guaranteed. But Vonn’s effort is always unstinting and, coupled with her superior talents, should ensure that this time around she will leave the Olympics with more than a consolation prize.

Ladies Alpine Skiing:
Super Combined Downhill/Slalom — Feb. 14
Downhill — Feb. 17
Super-G — Feb. 20
Giant Slalom — Feb. 24
Slalom — Feb. 26