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Lindsey, who calls her husband "Vonn" at all times (as does everyone in their circle), says, "It's a cliché, but he's the rock. And he's a great guy. It's all really cool." For the past two seasons Thomas has been accorded all the privileges of a fully accredited coach, allowing him access to Lindsey on the hill for prerace inspection and nerves management (which she needed while "freaking out," in her words, before winning the world championship downhill last February). Marriage made access easier for Thomas, he says, "because I was no longer just some yahoo boyfriend."
(On the outside of this fairy tale is Vonn's father. Alan Kildow, a former U.S. junior skiing champion, pushed Lindsey hard in her junior days, in her opinion straining their relationship; then he strongly disapproved of his daughter's courtship with Thomas. The two have not spoken since long before the wedding. "It's stayed the same for a while," says Lindsey. "And that's fine. It's good this way." Alan Kildow says, "I still communicate with her. She receives my phone calls and e-mails." Those communications, however, are not answered.)
Team Vonn took a gamble last summer by declining to accept the 50% pay cut that ski manufacturer Rossignol imposed on all its sponsored athletes and instead switching to Head equipment. It was a huge risk in an Olympic year. The changes did not stop there. This year the 5'10", 160-pound Vonn is racing on men's skis in both downhill and Super G. The men's skis offer more stability at high speeds, a significant advantage. (They're also safer for a skier as strong as Vonn.) Initially only Riesch followed Vonn and began using men's skis, and only in slalom. But as the Olympics approached, other top women, like Riesch and Anja Pärson of Sweden, began experimenting with men's skis in speed events, with mixed results. "Nobody else," Thomas said in late December, "is strong enough." (This being 2010, all this talk about speed and strength brings up the obvious steroid question. Vonn answered it over dinner at a Salzburg restaurant last summer. "Never," she said. "I have never done that, and I never would.")
Her strength is not her only advantage. Vonn is also the most talented racer in the world, with a unique skill set. "In speed events most skiers are either gliders, who try to gain time on the flat sections, or technical skiers, who turn well and try not to lose too much on the flats," says Mendes. "[Two-time Olympic medalist] Picabo Street was a great skier, but she was a glider. Lindsey isn't just one, she's both. She can build a lead by gliding on the flats and then nail the technical sections too. It's a huge advantage. She has no weakness."
Vonn signs autographs at a fall function in New York City arranged by Vail Resorts, one of her sponsors. Each child—each adult too—gets the Full Lindsey: a smile, a laugh, a few warm words connecting them to the star on the other side of the Sharpie. One group of kids drove three hours from northern Vermont and grabbed a train from New Haven just for this. Vonn has deals with Alka-Seltzer Plus, Head, Oroweat, Proctor & Gamble, Red Bull, Rolex, Sega, Under Armour, Vail Resorts and Uvex, all of whom are buying moments like this and, they hope, a slew of medals. "The girl everybody wants to take to the prom," says Sue Dorf of IMG, who handles Vonn along with Mark Ervin.
It is an eternally alluring image, vitally important to a niche endeavor like ski racing. Vonn can sell not only energy drinks but also herself and her sport, and she can do it effortlessly and, apparently, honestly. "Here's what Lindsey is," says Vanessa Larsen, an anesthetist from Park City and one of Vonn's best friends. "She's a total Midwestern, sweet, normal girl."
Mendes backs this up from another perspective. "On the U.S. team, your teammates are also your competition," she says. "But Lindsey is a great girl. She's just easy to be around."
It's perilous in 2010 to shill too passionately for any athlete's goodness, but Vonn seems a long shot to embarrass herself except perhaps through more oddball injuries. ("She's had bad luck," says hometown friend Lund, "but some klutziness too.") She is a medal or two away from lasting greatness, but that is always the final, daunting step.
With her wrist heavily taped, Vonn returned to racing quickly after her post-Christmas crash, just as she did following the champagne-bottle incident. Five days after the crash, the Vonns drove across central Europe from Zell am See, Austria, to Zagreb, Croatia, on roads choked with holiday travelers and piled high with falling snow. A four-hour trip took nearly eight. The Olympics loomed, 41 days away, and the view through their windshield conveyed a larger message: There are no easy roads to gold.
More from Tim Layden on Lindsey Vonn, including her thoughts about being in SI's Swimsuit issue, at SI.com/Olympics