Will 2010 Games become the Vonncouver Olympics?
AP Sports Writer
The lasting image of Lindsey Vonn’s 2006 Turin Olympics was a body-battering tumble during a downhill training run, a crash while she barreled down a mountainside at 50 mph or more.
She was tossed about 15 feet. She slammed against the snow with her right knee, her back, her head. She bounced about, this way and that.
In intense pain, Vonn feared fractured bones. She briefly wondered whether she would race again. After being airlifted to a hospital, she was told to forget about competing at those Olympics. Undaunted, she began trying to figure out how to sneak her way out of there, intent on reaching the slope in time for the next race.
“I tried to escape from the hospital, for crying out loud! It was always a matter of, ‘When can I get back out there?’ It was never a matter of ‘Can I?’ or ‘Maybe should I skip this race, prepare for the next race?’ I just wanted to ski,” Vonn said in an interview with The Associated Press. “When I’m skiing, I feel happy. And I needed that. I needed that really badly at that time.”
Forget about competing? Yeah, right: She was back on her skis, settling into a starting gate, less than 48 hours after that harrowing fall.
“That’s who I am,” said Vonn, who finished eighth in the Turin downhill. “For me, it was never an option, unless I was going to be done with my career. Unless my back was broken, I was going to get out there and keep skiing.”
The determination and daring she demonstrated four years ago, not to mention all of the speed and skill she’s shown ever since she was 7 or so, are all part of why Vonn is widely considered a lock to finally win her first Olympic medal.
Actually, not only her first, but also her second, third or perhaps fourth. If the U.S. Ski Team, the U.S. Olympic team, NBC and various sponsors have their way, the 25-year-old who lives and trains in Vail, Colo., might very well turn the Feb. 12-28 Winter Games into the Vonncouver Olympics.
“She’s skiing at the top of her game. I don’t think there’s ever been an American skier this dominant,” said Bode Miller, a two-time silver medalist at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games who entered the 2006 Turin Olympics as the talk of the town but left without a medal. “I look forward to seeing what she can do.”
For her part, Vonn is happy to let others set lofty expectations or drum up comparisons to the way U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps dominated the Beijing Games and lifted his sport’s popularity to new heights.
Sure, she wants to do well.
Sure, she wants to – feels compelled to, even – boost Alpine skiing’s profile.
And sure, she isn’t shy about saying she wants to climb to the top step of the podium, wants to feel the weight of a medal hanging from a ribbon draped around her neck, wants to hear the strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
But you won’t catch Vonn doing any boasting about going 5 for 5, say, or even 2 for 5, although her resume and recent results suggest it’s more than possible that she would fare well in every Alpine skiing event on the mountain at Whistler, British Columbia: in order, the super-combined, downhill, super-G, giant slalom and slalom.
She is, after all, a two-time World Cup overall champion and in the hunt to make that three in a row. She did, after all, recently become the first American skier to win World Cup races on three consecutive days and the first woman from any country to do it since 1997.
No, this is what you’ll hear from Vonn herself: “Anything can happen. There are a lot of variables. I’ll be happy with one medal.”
She knows all about the variables – wind, snow, fog, ice – and how easy it is to have one bad day while speeding down a slope, like what happened to her four years ago in San Sicario, Italy, in the Alps about 50 miles from Turin.
Or what happened as recently as Dec. 28, when she lost control during a World Cup giant slalom in Austria, thudded to the ground and worried she had broken her left wrist. It turned out it was a bad bruise, so Vonn was right back out there racing in a slalom the next morning, wearing a brace to protect the tender arm. Less than two weeks later, she was putting together her three-race winning streak.
“She’s had some really, really tough crashes, and she gets up the next day, and it’s like nothing happened out there,” said her husband, former U.S. Ski Team racer Thomas Vonn. “As long as she’s physically capable, mentally she’s right there. She doesn’t get afraid.”
In other words: Mistakes happen, and she doesn’t let them get in her way.
Remember, Vonn competed at the last world championships with a ski pole taped to her right glove. That’s because she sliced open her thumb opening a champagne bottle during a photo op after winning one of her two golds there.
Yes, the best female ski racer on the planet acknowledges she’s “kind of klutzy.”
“My husband says I’m safer on the hill than I am off the hill. I don’t know if that’s 100 percent true,” Vonn said with a laugh. “I trip over the occasional power cord or bump into a coffee table. There are some things that can be more dangerous than you really think they are.”
No one needs to be reminded how dangerous Alpine skiing can be, and plenty of racers steadfastly refuse to watch videos of their crashes.
And there were competitors who averted their eyes that day in February 2006, when the skier then known as Lindsey Kildow – she married Thomas in 2007 – went hurtling out of control at the last Winter Olympics.
Vonn herself? She’s seen her spills. Went so far as to let the world watch her while she watched her 2006 Olympics tumble during an appearance on a late-night TV talk show.
“Most people, when they have a really bad crash, they don’t want to see it or they shy away from it,” her husband said. “That’s one thing I think that Lindsey is unique in: That stuff doesn’t faze her. It can take days, weeks, months, years, and some people never recover from a big crash like that. I’m not talking about the physical injury. I’m talking about just mentally, being able to lay it on the line again.”
If it takes more than physical and mental prowess to be as good as Vonn is, those traits do help. Listed by the U.S. Ski Team at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, Vonn is taller than most women on the World Cup circuit, and her weight became a topic for discussion in early January when Austrian coaches reportedly suggested being heavier gave her an edge.
It’s precisely the sort of speculation and off-slope spotlight Vonn can expect to only intensify as the Olympics near. She called the whole thing “ridiculous,” said she used it as motivation and also noted that Austrian coaches apologized to her.
Vonn also used the occasion to talk about the pride she takes in her work ethic and fitness level.
“With her conditioning training, she’s pretty regimented with what she does and when she does it,” U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Jim Tracy said. “Like I’ve told many people over the last couple of years: If you want to know what she does, you just need to get up an hour and a half earlier every morning than everybody else, and then you’ll see.”
Vonn’s leg strength allows her to use men’s skis, which are larger than women’s and are harder to turn but provide more stability. Vonn talks about trying to ski like men – using her power to “ski a tighter line, a more direct line … and hold the forces a little bit better.”
Or as Miller described it: “She wants to ski hard, and maybe she doesn’t see role models for her in the female field. She means ‘attack’ like a guy – bring some intensity and charge.”
Vonn never dialed down the intensity after what happened at the Turin Olympics, no matter how scary the accident was at the time, and no matter that the back she bruised there often still gets stiff and swollen.
Still, reflecting on that whole experience, Vonn is certain it is part of why she’s the successful ski racer she is now.
“Even though it was disappointing I didn’t get any medals from that Olympics, I still think that it was an important moment in my life, and I wouldn’t actually change it. … I always think that everything happens for a reason, and maybe it just wasn’t my time,” Vonn said. “Maybe I really needed to go through that and learn from it. And that’s made me who I am today.”
And, Vonn hopes, and everyone else assumes, soon will help make her something new: an Olympic champion.
AP Sports Writers Rachel Cohen in New York, and Pat Graham and Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed to this report.