WHISTLER, British Columbia –None of it mattered one bit to Lindsey Vonn.
Not the badly bruised and swollen right shin, so painful at first it was tough to even walk, let alone ski with abandon at 65 mph down an icy, bumpy mountain.
Not the anguish that came from knowing the injury in a practice crash two weeks ago curtailed her Olympic preparation and made her wonder whether she’d compete at all.
(AP Photo/Charlie Krupa)
And certainly not those outsized expectations others were scripting, so much talk about becoming Vancouver’s answer to Beijing’s Michael Phelps, about winning medals–plural–and golds–not any ol’ color–at these Winter Games.
With some Lidocaine cream numbing the bothersome bruise, some advice from her husband and a heap of skill and confidence, Vonn set everything else aside Wednesday and did what she does better than every other woman in the world: ski fast.
Vonn won the downhill in 1 minute, 44.19 seconds–more than a half-second quicker than anyone else–to collect her first career Olympic medal in the opening women’s race. It’s the first downhill gold for an American woman, and Vonn combined with Julia Mancuso to give the United States its first 1-2 finish in an Olympic Alpine event since 1984. Elisabeth Goergl of Austria was third, nearly 1 1/2 seconds behind Vonn.
“A huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders now. I got the gold medal that I came here to get. And now I’m just going to attack every day, with no regrets and no fear,” said Vonn, a 25-year-old who lives and trains in Vail, Colo. “And, I mean, I’m just happy with one. Anything else from here on out is a bonus.”
In other words: Look out, everybody.
Vonn feels pressure-free, and she proved to herself she can deal with the pain, which was at its most intense when she landed the final jump.
“Now I can ski confidently,” Vonn said. “I know I can do it, even with the shin injury.”
She’s entered in all five events and could make it 2-for-2 in Thursday’s super-combined, which was postponed last weekend because of too-wet, too-warm weather. Freezing overnight temperatures made the downhill slope especially slick Wednesday, and a series of scary falls prompted organizers to shorten the course and shave down the final jump before Thursday’s action.
The downhill was interrupted for about a half-hour while Edith Miklos, a 21-year-old Romanian, was airlifted off the course by helicopter and later treated for a knee injury. Five-time Olympic medalist Anja Paerson, one of Vonn’s chief rivals, lost control on the last leap, sailing about half a football field before landing on her back, tumbling through a gate and sliding across the red finish line. Miraculously, Paerson was badly bruised but no bones were broken, and she wasn’t immediately ruled out for Thursday. Marion Rolland of France stumbled out of the start and tore a ligament in her left knee not 5 seconds into her run, years of work discarded in an instant.
Vonn knows that sort of disappointment all too well. At her second Olympics, four years ago in Italy, she lost control during a downhill training run at more than 50 mph and wound up in the hospital with a battered back. Her first thought was to figure out a way to sneak out of there and get back on skis. Less than 48 hours later, Vonn finished eighth in the downhill.
She sees that as a pivotal moment, and it preceded her big breakthroughs, including the last two World Cup overall titles and two world championship golds last year.
Vonn was hurt Feb. 2 in Austria, tumbling during a slalom practice session and slamming the top of her ski boot against her right shin. Simply pulling on her boot in her hotel room to test the injury’s progress became an ordeal, something her husband, Thomas, said she found depressing.
All told, before Wednesday she spent three days skiing since the mishap: a free run last week, four slalom practice runs Sunday, and a downhill training run Monday that she said left the leg throbbing. Hardly the ideal way to get ready for the biggest races of her life.
“She’s a fighter,” U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Jim Tracy said. “I knew 100 percent, whether she was going to be sore or not, she was going to be ready to race 100 percent.”
Indeed, Vonn was superior on this day, her ponytail peeking out of her helmet and flapping against her back as she attacked every turn.
“I guess the–what’s it called?–the adrenaline of the Olympics will tend to override everything. I think she could have skied without a foot and been OK,” Thomas Vonn said, a folded U.S. flag tucked under his right elbow. “She put it out of her mind. She numbed it up real good. She was hurting in warmup, but you get in the starting gate, I think you forget a lot of that stuff.”
Vonn and Mancuso have raced against each other since they were kids, and while hardly fast friends off the slope, they were speedy as can be on this sun-splashed afternoon with nary a trace of fog or cloud. Both wore the newfangled polyester-knit body suits made for the U.S. Ski Team, the ones with no real texture or seams to reduce wind drag.
If this Olympic medal thing was new to Vonn–she sobbed when it became clear the gold would be hers and kept calling this “the best day of my life!” – not so for Mancuso, of Squaw Valley, Calif. Mancuso won the giant slalom at the Turin Olympics, and said Wednesday, her trademark tiara propped atop her hair, “I’ve always just known that I would get a medal here.”
Perhaps that’s so.
But she had failed to produce a top-3 finish in a race since the Olympic test downhill at Whistler two years ago. She hasn’t won a World Cup downhill in nearly three years.
“Coming off a back injury last year, I was in a lot of rehab. I knew that I just had to hang on and keep going for it,” Mancuso said. “It’s really been a tough, long road.”
She was 10th out of the starting gate and took the early lead by going nearly a second faster than Goergl, a margin Vonn called “a little bit alarming.” When Thomas Vonn–a former Olympic skier who serves as a coach and adviser to his wife–saw that, he radioed to Lindsey to tell her she would need to ski aggressively to top Mancuso’s performance.
Lindsey’s reply to Thomas, essentially: “I got it.”
That’s an understatement.
Good as she was, she wasn’t perfect. Vonn’s most noticeable mistake came at the bottom, when she hit a bump and briefly appeared to lose her balance, raising her right ski off the snow while steadying herself with her left.
“One of the most clutch runs I’ve ever seen. She had the weight of the world on her, and people basically hanging the medal around her neck before she went out of the start,” he said. “That’s incredibly hard to deal with.”
The scrutiny is not going away. That shin will keep being analyzed. More medals are being anticipated. Waiting for the postrace flower ceremony, she began applying some makeup, then looked up to see a TV camera relaying the scene to a giant videoboard near the finish area. She playfully scrunched up her features and said, “Oh, come on.”
Later, pausing to greet fans, she posed for photos and hugs, and autographed everything thrust at her, including tickets, helmets, sleeves and the Sports Illustrated cover she graces in a tuck position.
“There was a lot of expectations and a lot of pressure coming into these games, and I stood up to that, and I fought back today, and I think I proved to everyone that I’m a good skier,” Vonn said with a hearty laugh. “And that’s what I came here to do.”