A year out from the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympic Games– Feb. 12, 2010 — the United States has a bona fide Alpine ski favorite.
Before injuring her thumb while opening a bottle of champagne, Lindsey Vonn took the FIS World Championships by storm. The injury, which required surgery, has knocked Vonn out of Thursday’s giant slalom, but she hopes to compete in Saturday’s slalom.
Vonn, a Minnesota native and a Vail, Colo., resident, already has won two World events at Val d’Isere, France — the super G and downhill. She missed a silver medal in the super combined, learning only at the finish line that she had been disqualified for missing a gate.
Just before her ill-fated downhill celebration, Vonn spoke with reporters via teleconference.
“Downhill is my favorite event. It always has been since I met Picabo Street,” Vonn said. “She really inspired me to want to be a ski champion, and her best event was always downhill. For some reason, I just have always been drawn to downhill. It’s the speed, the adrenaline, the rush of it all. It’s an amazing discipline. I’ve always wanted to win at a big event in downhill, and I feel like it’s a big breakthrough for me.
“I was able to do it despite nerves. My husband (Tom, a 2002 Olympian) was with me there at the start and helped calm me down, and we really worked through it. I was able to win despite that. I’m definitely going to take what I learned from today into the Olympics and, hopefully, I’ll be able to do well there.”
Vonn, married last September, competed in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics under her maiden name, Kildow. She placed sixth in combined and 32nd in slalom at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games; seventh in super G and eighth in downhill at the 2006 Torino Games.
Now 24, Vonn is a threat in all Alpine events. She won the 2008 World Cup overall and downhill titles.
She is the first American woman to win the overall World Cup titles since Lexington’s Tamara McKinney in 1983. Vonn also won five downhills in 2008, for a career total of an American-record 10. (She passed Street and men’s skier Daron Rahlves on the all-time downhill win list.)
“Unfortunately, I never got to watch her race when I was younger,” Vonn said of McKinney. “I really only saw Picabo and Hilary Lindh at the Olympics, and when I met Picabo in Minnesota, that was definitely inspiration for me. But I never met Tamara until later in my career, and I was never able to see her ski. My dad use to always talk about here as a legend in skiing, and she’s a hero. I look back and see who really has done the most for skiing and Tamara played a huge role in that.”
As a teen-ager, Vonn became the only American ever to win at Italy’s Trofeo Topolino (for skiers 11-14) and earn Junior Worlds medals and U.S. titles.
She earned her first World Cup win just six weeks after turning 20. In 2007, she took her first major championships medals with a silver in downhill and super G.
Now, she’s better than ever, armed with the mighty intangible known as experience.
“Definitely, from the 2002 Olympics, I’ve made huge physical advances in my fitness and, also, mentally,” said Vonn, who is listed at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds. “In 2002 I was just there as a rookie. I was trying just to get experience and I was having a good time. I wasn’t nervous at all. That actually allowed me to ski really well in the combined.
“In Torino, I came in with a lot more expectations and pressure than I had in any World Championships or Olympics. I knew how to handle it … At the same time, I had (an) injury and knew I probably wasn’t going to win any medals, but was out there trying my best. I think that took some of the pressure off.
“These World Championships have been the toughest because of the pressure and expectations. But because of my past experiences and everything that I have learned, and with the help of my husband, I was able to be mentally much stronger.”
Smarter, unwilling to throw caution to the wind.
“You have to give it 100 percent effort if you want to win. But, at the same time, you still have to be smart,” Vonn said. “You have to still ski the line, but you respect it. You can’t say ‘OK, I’m going 100 percent; I’m going to go as straight as I can and just push myself to win it.’ Because if you’re doing that, you’re not going to be fast. You can’t be fast by just going straight. … I was definitely giving it my all, giving it 100 percent, but still being smart. Still keeping that high line. Still being right where I needed to be in the technical sections and the difficult sections. You have to do that.”
Aside from the Worlds and Olympics, the only other place Vonn lets it all rip is in practice. Other competitions, she skis “90 percent … more or less.”
“When I train at 100 percent, I go straighter. I try to push the line. I try to push everything. But the likelihood of going out and making a mistake is very high.”
Likelihood of a Vonn mistake in Vancouver? Not so high.
We’ll know for sure in one more year.