Other Sports

For Vonn, no pain reliever like victory

Skier Lindsey Vonn of the United States celebrates after winning a gold medal in the women's downhill during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, on Wednesday, February 17, 2010. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Skier Lindsey Vonn of the United States celebrates after winning a gold medal in the women's downhill during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, on Wednesday, February 17, 2010. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

WHISTLER, British Columbia — Lindsey Vonn rubbed lidocaine numbing cream on her bruised shin before the Olympic downhill race on Wednesday.

But there was no remedy to ease throbbing Olympic pressure.

As Vonn stood in the start house, taking deep breaths of mountain air, she had to push all the hype out of her mind: The Sports Illustrated cover shot and the swimsuit issue photo of her in a bikini; the comparisons to Michael Phelps; the constant NBC promos; the unparalleled winning streak on the World Cup tour, and the label of the 2010 Winter Olympics as the Vonncouver Games.

Not only did she have to beat her opponents. She had to meet expectations.

Somehow, despite stabs to her shin bone with every bump, despite a ferocious, washboard course that sent six skiers flailing or skidding, and despite a brilliant run by her teammate, Vonn did exactly what she had to do.

She won the gold medal. She proved she's the fastest woman on snow. She fulfilled a lifelong dream and year-long buildup.

And it felt better than she expected. There's no pain reliever like victory.

"My shin was killing me but when I crossed the finish line and saw my name up there No. 1, I was overwhelmed," Vonn said. "It's the best day of my life by far."

After four days of weather delays, sun kissed the mile-long Franz's Run on a postcard morning in Canada's Coast Mountain Range. A loud crowd cheered, waved flags, blew horns and rang cowbells as Vonn kicked through the starting wand and plunged down the slope. She is so powerful slashing through turns that she uses men's skis. Yet she was so graceful through flats that she looked like she was gliding while other women struggled to hold their line.

Going 66 mph and generating a rooster tail of snow, Vonn built speed at the top, hit a bump and lost two tenths on the lower section, then flew through the Hot Air jump and zoomed into the finish corral with a time of 1:44.19, edging U.S. teammate Julia Mancuso by .56 seconds. Vonn collapsed on her back in joy and soon started "bawling," as she said, "and couldn't stop." She climbed over a fence to embrace family members.

She became the first American woman to win the Olympic downhill, skiing's glamour event. She and Mancuso, childhood rivals, became the third pair of Americans to finish 1-2 in an Olympic alpine race, the first since 1984.

We've had our American winter stars — Dorothy Hamill, Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen, Brian Boitano, Sarah Hughes, Picabo Street, the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" hockey team. Make way for a new one — so sweet and down-to-earth you want to hug her.

Vonn looks like a 25-year-old Heidi with her blond locks, red cheeks and wide smile. She is, as her mother raised all her five kids to be, "Minnesota nice." The woman who will soon eclipse Bode Miller as the best U.S. ski racer in history learned to ski on 306-foot-tall Buck Hill south of Minneapolis.

Vonn's career has been like the twisting downhill course. At the 2006 Games, she crashed during practice, then tried to sneak out of the hospital. Last year she nearly severed her thumb celebrating her world championship with a broken champagne bottle. In December she bruised her wrist.

She's been estranged from her father, Alan Kildow, for four years as a result of her parents' divorce and his disapproval of her relationship with Thomas Vonn, now her husband and coach. Kildow wasn't invited to the wedding and wasn't invited to the Olympics.

"There's no communication from her end and I doubt there will be, even today," Thomas Vonn said. "It's a cold situation."

To complicate things, two weeks ago, she slammed her shin into her boot when she crashed during practice in Austria. One week ago, the injury was still so painful, she was uncertain if she could compete. But using everything from laser treatment to massage to Austrian cheese compresses, and benefiting from the postponement of racing, Vonn made herself ready — with only ONE practice run.

She conquered Olympic pressure. It's unlike Super Bowl pressure because there is no team around you. It's unlike Wimbledon pressure because the Olympics come only once every four years. Your whole country wants you, expects you to win. The top step of the podium can seem 10 stories high.

"It's a lot of pressure on one day and one run that comes down to hundredths of a second," said Vonn's sister Karin. She stood next to brother Reed, who had an 'L' and a 'V' shaved into his Mohawk hairdo — by sister Lindsey on Tuesday. She used to cut all her siblings' hair.

"I worked my whole life for this," said Vonn, who has medal chances in four more events. "A huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders."

Vonn was calm in the start house after talking with her husband.

"I tried to make the Olympics not the Olympics — there's still a start and a finish and all that other stuff is nonsense," he said. "With the adrenaline of the Olympics, I think she could have skied without a foot and won."

She watched in the finish area while other women wiped out. Contender Anja Paerson of Sweden took a Hermann Maier-like flight and slid headfirst across the line. Unnerved, Germany's Maria Riesch skied cautiously.

Vonn was fastest. She couldn't stop crying, but only because it hurt so good.

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