Vonn ready for her big moment

The American is the world's best, with looks and personality made for TV. And after her crash in Turin, she's driven to win.

February 07, 2010|By Chris Dufresne | Tribune Newspapers

Lindsey Vonn was going downhill so fast - in a wholesome, epic, lucrative way - there wasn't time to wait for her to actually win an Olympic medal.

Lindsey's script was penned months ago, and should her skis take turns for the Whistler worse, well, in the snow business there's always white-out.

Usually in America, you need to first cry through your national anthem to activate the Olympics gold card, but Vonn's forward momentum could not be contained.

She is the drink of these Vancouver Olympics (Red Bull), the watch (Rolex) and the face (Cover Girl).

"Lindsey is authentic," David Neal, NBC's executive producer for the Olympics, says of her star power. "She's very telegenic. She's the best woman skier in the world. Lindsey has the whole package - athletic ability, personality. She's the sort of person that is made for television."

Vonn is 25, already transcendent, already a commodity and already the greatest female U.S. skier in history.

The "yodelers" and cow-bell ringers overseas already know what prime time in Peoria is about to discover. Vonn has 31 World Cup victories - an astonishing nine this season - one shy of Bode Miller's American record of 32. Vonn ranks eighth on the all-time World Cup victory list, within striking distance of Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell's record of 62.

Let's cut, though, to the chalet scene, with Vonn looking forlornly at her empty Olympic trophy case.

At age 16, she finished sixth in the combined event at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002. Four years later, a head-over-boots training crash in the Italian Alps probably cost her a medal.

Vonn, battered and bruised, returned from her hospital bed to finish eighth in downhill, seventh in super giant slalom and 14th in slalom.

Since Italy, she has dominated the World Cup circuit, capturing two overall titles.

"Everyone is out there essentially to beat me," she said on a pre-Olympics conference call from Switzerland before she won the super-G at St. Moritz. "It's hard. It's hard to be consistently fast, day in and day out. Vancouver is going to be no different. It will be tough to deal with all the expectations, not just from the media, but from myself."

NBC has spent the year filling film canisters with background. A five-event skier, Vonn is being promoted by some as the Michael Phelps of the Winter Olympics.

Photographers have dressed her up in evening gowns for cover shoots. Travelers in window seats know her as the cover girl on Midwest Airlines Magazine.

Vonn hails from Minnesota, the former Lindsey Kildow, wedded to former ski racer Thomas Vonn.

Fresh-faced and scandal-free, she resents being labeled the "anti-Bode Miller." But her marriage to an "older" former ski racer after the 2006 Games caused an initial ripple.

"We as a staff are very protective over the kids," U.S. women's coach Jim Tracy said. "And when boyfriends come in, we're very protective over athletes to make sure they're not distracted and taken out of their games, so to speak."

But Vonn's career has flourished since her wedding.

"He's the main reason I've had a lot of success the last couple of years," Vonn said of her husband.

"She's so professional," U.S. teammate Stacey Cook said. "Everything down to what water bottle she's drinking out of is planned, prepared. That's the amazing part. We get to ski with the best skier in the world every day."

Then, Vonn fixes her hair and becomes a runway model.

She has been described as "the perfect storm of nice."

"I want to be a good example," Vonn said. "I think it's rare in this day to find people who are honest and moral and aren't arrested for something. Know what I mean? It's hard for kids to look up to people because you never know what they're going to do. I'm not out there just playing the game. I'm out there trying to do a good job and be a good person. That's really important."

The problem with setting someone up for Olympic success, as Miller learned, is that it can be a powder keg.

Thinking Vonn can medal like Phelps is dangerous because ski racing and swimming are so different.

For Phelps, the pool size never changes. In ski racing, every course is different. A change in snow conditions, or a temperature drop, even what bib number you draw, can win - or cost you - the gold.

"Michael competes in an extremely controlled environment," Tracy, the U.S. coach, said of Phelps. "When you're outdoors, Mother Nature is always going to decide how the game is played. Always. The weather plays so much of a role in what we do and how we do it, and when we do it."

Vonn is considered a medal contender in five events: downhill, super-G, combined, giant slalom and slalom.

She will be a prohibitive favorite in two events: downhill and super-G, with a chance to medal in the super combined. Vonn is a longer shot in the technical events - giant slalom and slalom - mostly because of a left arm bruise suffered during a crash in December that causes discomfort when she plants her pole on gate turns.

Vonn is trying to temper the talk.

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