Ready to rock
She's been bumped, bruised and emotionally battered, but Lindsey Vonn keeps bouncing back
Despite a litany of injuries, Lindsay Vonn is favored to win several medals
Vonn was a natural as a kid and has added a training regimen to match her talent
Sponsors and fans love Vonn for her kindness and wholesome image
Eight months before the Vancouver Games, Lindsey Vonn skis the Olympic downhill in her mind. She is in a subterranean workout room at the Red Bull soccer club's training center in Salzburg, Austria, balanced with each foot on a nylon slack line suspended three feet off the pebbled orange rubber floor. She is crouched in an aerodynamic tuck, her hands thrust out in front of her chin. Trainer Oliver Saringer speaks gently into her right ear: You're on the downhill course at Whistler .... Vonn closes her eyes and begins shifting her weight rhythmically from one foot to the other as if executing high-speed turns on a Canadian mountainside more than 5,000 miles away.
She exhales and inhales forcefully, mimicking the aerobic demands of high-speed racing, alternately gliding and turning. Close your eyes with her and you can almost hear the chattering of snow beneath skis. After nearly a minute -- shorter than the Olympic downhill but a long time on wobbly strips of thick cloth -- she relaxes her body and jumps to the floor, her pale skin flushed red, capillaries descended from northern Europe all aglow from three hours of training on a warm summer morning. "I love that exercise," says Vonn. "Once I visualize a course, I never forget it. So I get on those lines and go through exactly the run that I want to have. I control my emotions and just make it routine."
This is not intended as a joke. But it works as one: Routine. Lindsey Vonn. Hah. Good one.
Vonn, 25, arrives in Vancouver as the boldest name on a short list of U.S. Olympians with the potential to leave Canada famous beyond the narrow confines of the Games. She will ski in all five Alpine racing disciplines and is the gold medal favorite in three (downhill, Super G and combined) and a medal contender in a fourth (slalom). She has won nine World Cup races this season -- tying her own U.S. record -- including five of six downhills, and now has 31 career World Cup victories, just one shy of Bode Miller's mark for the most by an American.
"I'm sure she'll win medals," says Maria Riesch of Germany, her close friend and primary competition in Vancouver. Vonn's races stretch across a Phelpsian 13 days, giving NBC and its many media platforms the opportunity to transform her into a one-woman miniseries. Her agents at IMG have locked down lucrative sponsorship deals with 10 companies, all of whom will benefit immensely if Vonn mouths The Star-Spangled Banner from the top step of the medal stand, preferably with a tear or two rolling down her alabaster cheeks.
It is a dizzying confluence of expectations, especially in a sport in which weather and snow conditions often produce unforeseen outcomes. "Kind of a lot of pressure," says Hilary Lund, one of Vonn's oldest friends from her childhood in Burnsville, Minn. Yet Vonn comes to this moment seasoned by a lifetime of preparation. She's been knocked sideways repeatedly en route to her Olympic goal, only to resume the chase smarter and stronger on each occasion. "So many times I think everything has been really stressful for Lindsey along the way," says Vonn's younger sister Karin Kildow, a junior at the University of San Diego. "But she's learned to cope. And she doesn't look back. She just keeps going."
She kept going at age 13 when her family -- Mom, Dad and four younger siblings -- moved from Minnesota to Colorado so that Lindsey could have better ski training. She kept going when her parents divorced in 2003 and four years later when her marriage to Thomas Vonn (a former U.S. Olympic skier 10 years her senior) further damaged her already strained relationship with her father, Alan Kildow. She kept going in 2005, when she was unprepared for the pressure of contesting the world championships as a medal favorite and came away with nothing.
And she kept going through a litany of wipeouts and injuries that have ranged from terrifying to comical. There was the 70-mph downhill training crash two days before the 2006 Turin Olympics, which left her to contest four events with back and pelvic bruises, in miserable pain and with little hope of winning anything. There was her nearly severed right thumb, injured while she was opening a champagne bottle after winning two gold medals at the '09 world championships in Val d'Isère, France. There was the bloody tongue, chomped open when her knee bounced up into her chin as she won a World Cup downhill in Lake Louise, Canada, in December. And there was the deep bone bruise in her left wrist after a scary giant slalom crash on Dec. 28 in Lienz, Austria, in which Vonn's skis snagged a ridge of grippy snow and launched her into the air. She landed hard on her left side.
"The doctors told us at first that her arm was broken," says Thomas Vonn. "It was such a violent crash, it could have been a knee blowout for sure. When they said broken arm, I was actually relieved. And of course Lindsey, before we even knew, was immediately asking what she would have to do to ski with a broken arm. With skiers who get hurt, sometimes it takes months or years before they move ahead. Lindsey just goes. It's not normal." Yet, it is.