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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.

By Staff writer / February 17, 2010

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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Vancouver, British Columbia

Today was about Lindsey Vonn, winning the Olympic gold she coveted most.

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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.

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.

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