Lindsey Vonn: stunning downhill gold shakes skiing world

Lindsey Vonn wins gold in the women's downhill, and though she (wisely) refuses to buy into the hype around her in these Winter Olympics, she's well poised to make a mark on history.

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    American Lindsey Vonn obliterated the field, winning gold in the women's downhill at the Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Wednesday.
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Today was about Lindsey Vonn, winning the Olympic gold she coveted most.

But from here forward, Lindsey Vonn’s Winter Olympics are about history.

Vonn did not merely win the women’s Olympic downhill Wednesday, she laid down a run that shook the very roots of Whistler Mountain.

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It was the sort of run upon which a mythology is built, and if she can duplicate it several more times at these Olympic Games, she will at least begin to enter the conversation about the greatest women skiers of all time.

“It showed just how dominant Lindsey Vonn is on the women’s side,” says Steven Threndyle, who has covered the World Cup circuit for Canadian publications.

At the moment, he says, “She is like the Wayne Gretzky of skiing.”

She is not the Michael Phelps of skiing, however.

After her first gold of these Games – with four more events to come – she wanted no part of the media speculation: Can she do what no woman has ever done and win five alpine medals in one Olympics?

“I don’t care” what the future holds, she said after the race. “I got what I came here to do, I got a gold medal.”

Vonn not buying the hype

The use of the singular was notable – and wise. Skiing is not swimming. Changing conditions in the middle of a race can determine a winner more surely than talent.

For instance, if snow starts falling right before you ski, slowing down the course, “it’s more than likely that you won’t win it, even if you are the favorite,” says fellow American Ted Ligety, a gold medalist in Turin.

Vonn knows this too well to get caught up in the hype.

She also knows that, whatever comes next, this gold medal is special. It is the first-ever Olympic gold for an American woman in the downhill, meaning that Vonn has accomplished what her idol, Picabo Street, could not.

“I can’t stop crying,” she said. “This is everything that I ever wanted and hoped for.”

To her, truly, everything from here on out might just be dessert.

But the way she won will only raise expectations.

A race or a test of nerve?

For most of the day, the downhill was engrossing less as a race than as a test of fortitude. The top of the course resembled a highway rumble strip, with the skiers’ legs turned to churning shock-absorbers of flesh and straining muscle.

As Canadian skier Emily Brydon said: “I was not skiing the course, the course was skiing me.”

By the time skiers reached the Hot Air jump – the last on the course – their speed was in the red, and their legs, spent. The result was three tremendous crashes right at the finish line.

In the most harrowing, the jump launched Swede Anja Paerson – who was in second place at the last interval – more than 200 feet down the slope. The concussion of landfall snapped her legs out from under her as she slid past the finish.

“She’s OK,” her coach, Ulf Emilsson, said afterward. But “if you see the crash, it’s amazing that she can actually walk.”

One of the skiers who followed her crashed through all the safety gates, but one higher up the course and was airlifted off the course because she could not ski down.

In this context, Vonn’s run appeared to come from “another planet,” Threndyle says.

It was not perfect, Vonn acknowledged. But “it is not possible to do a perfect run on this course,” Swiss competitor Nadja Kamer said.

Earlier in the week, after taking a training run on the course, Vonn said: “It's not a feel-good course, it's not a fun course, it's a stick-your-nose-in-it-and-make-it-down course. If you're skiing aggressive and not sliding, you'll be fast."

That is precisely what she did. While her competitors were routinely sliding off the perfect line down the hill – the fall line – like rodeo riders bucked from a bull, Vonn tenaciously clung to it.

“She has a love for the fall line that you can’t teach somebody,” said Street in an interview before the Games. “You can teach someone to do it a little bit here and there, but all the time to be yearning for that, pushing for that, she has a special knack for that.”

Obstacles to overcome

Even beyond the hill itself, the challenges to Vonn were not insignificant. Less than a week ago, an injured shin prevented her from being able even to put on her ski boot. But a series of weather-related delays to the alpine skiing schedule has helped.

“I needed those days off,” she said.

Yet on this day, perhaps the greater challenge was her own teammate, Julia Mancuso, who was nearly one second ahead of the field when Vonn entered the start gate. When Vonn crossed the finish line, Mancuso was 0.56 second behind her – and bronze medalist Elisabeth Goergl of Austria was an astonishing 1.46 seconds back.

In the men’s downhill two days earlier, 0.09 seconds separated first and third.

It was as if Usain Bolt had made an appearance at the Franz’s Downhill course, arms spread wide, screaming across the finish.

Already a two-time overall World Cup champion – and on her way to a third this year – Vonn is already great. Now, the legendary awaits as these Olympics spread before her with an amazing sense of possibility.

Even in the most outrageous scenario, Vonn will not become the most prolific medal-winner in Olympic alpine history. Janica Kostelic holds that record, with six medals – four gold – in two Games.

With gold Wednesday, however, Vonn is at least putting herself on that path.

Results from this year suggest that she is a medal favorite in the super G and Thursday’s combined. And only Kostelic has won more than three medals in a single Olympics – four (three gold) in 2002.

If Vonn wants to be considered one of the best alpine skiers ever, Wednesday was a perfect start.

Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report.

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