Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Skier Lindsey Vonn is top U.S. hopeful at 2010 Vancouver Olympics

Washington Post Staff Writer 

The high temperature of 4 degrees had come and gone one Sunday afternoon last December at the base of a mountain in Lake Louise, Alberta, when Lindsey Vonn found her husband, Thomas, and buried her head into the shoulder of his puffy ski jacket.
"I'm so depressed," she said quietly. He put his arm around her.
"Hey," Thomas Vonn said. "That's awesome."
There, in a tiny six-word exchange with her husband, everything was on display: Vonn's talent and potential, her desire and competitiveness -- and, more than anything, her expectations, both internal and external.She won two races that weekend and came within a blink of another, the beginning of a season that now includes nine pre-Olympic wins from a skier who has won the last two World Cup overall titles. She is widely considered, as Canadian ski federation president Gary Allan said, "just the most professional performer we have out here."
"She's not really depressed," Thomas Vonn explained later. "Racing just doesn't always go the way you expect it to go."
So she is expecting a bounty and is guaranteed nothing. Just six American skiers have ever won two medals in a single Olympics. None has won more than that. Yet now, with the Vancouver Games set to open Friday, here comes Vonn, a clear favorite for gold in the downhill and the super-G, a strong contender in the combined, a threat for a medal in both the slalom and the giant slalom -- though, hampered by an injured hand, she has struggled in the latter two disciplines during the World Cup season.
Three hundredths of a second could determine whether Vonn matches the breathless hopes that have been thrust upon her entering these Games or instead heads back to her home in Vail, Colo., or her home town of Burnsville, Minn., another victim of build-up that proved unmatchable.
In 2008, Michael Phelps went into the Beijing Olympics with a quest for eight gold medals. He delivered. Now, historic expectations are moved from one Games to the next, from one sport to another, whether or not the analogies apply.
Vonn is accepting, if not quite comfortable, with the expectations.

"What I've come to realize is that the only thing I can do is be prepared and -- physically, mentally -- do the best that I can every day," Vonn said. "At the end of the day, if people judge me for not succeeding or succeeding -- what have you -- that's their opinion. I have to be happy with my performance and what I've given."
What she has given is her life -- "my whole life," she said, almost all 25 years of it. And now, it is not just hers. Thomas Vonn was once a ski racer, too. The year of his lone Olympic appearance, 2002, was the year of Lindsey Kildow's first, when she was just 17. That same year, she and Vonn began dating, though he is nine years older and her father disapproved. In 2007, they got married.
Now, entering an Olympics in which she could be the marquee performer, they are rarely apart. Her career is their career, and when NBC's cameras are trained on Vonn before a race, during a race, after a race -- as they will undoubtedly be over the course of the next two-plus weeks -- expect a corresponding shot of Thomas's face, smiling or sullen. If she wins multiple events, they will have done it together. If she fails to earn even a single medal -- as Bode Miller, the featured product of 2006 pre-Olympic hype machine, learned was possible -- they will have done that together, too.

"Being married has really changed her," said Linda Krohn, Lindsey's mother. "It's made her so much calmer. It's really cool."
'Thomas, I need you'
Ski racing involves significantly more stewing than actual racing, with individual runs lasting two minutes at most. Days and months and years of preparation build to an occasionally unnerving tension in the moments before a race, when skiers gather at the top of a mountain, waiting their turn to churn through the starting gate, anxiety often more prevalent than oxygen at those altitudes.
Lindsey Vonn has won 31 World Cup races and is the most successful female American ski racer in history. Last February, when she climbed to the top of a downhill course in Val d'Isere, France, she was the woman to beat. She had won the super-G just six days earlier. Yet faced with this prospect -- the speedy downhill, her best discipline -- she was a wreck.
"I just got to the point where I couldn't function," Vonn said. "I was just a nervous wreck. Literally, I was shaking. I was like, 'I don't know if I can do this.' "
So the call went out over a radio: "Thomas, I need you."
This is the on-the-mountain portion of the most unique partnership in skiing. Fellow competitors, friends, rivals, they all seem to marvel at how this 34-year-old former World Cup skier -- a classic tinkerer with equipment, "Mr. Technology Guy," his wife called him -- works with this sturdy, 5-foot-10 natural talent who can win races on ability alone.
"She's way more of the free spirit, like, doesn't pay attention to details," Thomas Vonn said. "She just has the raw talent and drive to do it. And I'm way more of the technical guy."
That, though, undersells Thomas Vonn's role in all this. In fact, he guides almost every aspect of Lindsey's career. Lindsey Vonn's father, Alan Kildow, moved his family to Vail from the Minneapolis suburbs when Lindsey was 11. But according to Lindsey, he became overbearing when she reached the World Cup level. Alan Kildow did not attend the 2006 Olympics, did not attend his daughter's wedding, and is not in contact with Lindsey now.
Thomas Vonn, clearly, is the confidante through which every decision -- be it about equipment or scheduling or appearances -- runs.
"He does not want the limelight," said Krohn, who divorced Alan Kildow several years ago. "He doesn't want to be up on that stand, and he's been in those places before, on that Olympic stage. That's a wonderful deal. He wants to be behind her, supporting her."

But the relationship wasn't perfect from the start. Thomas Vonn first joined Lindsey on the road full-time more than three years ago, full of enthusiasm for his then-girlfriend's career, along with plenty of advice. That didn't always sit well with a skier who had already won races, several races, her way.
"She wasn't always receptive," Thomas Vonn said. "It was kind of like a reprogramming process, because she was always used to operating a different way, just totally winging it. 'Oh, I'm good this week, and not this week,' and not knowing why.

"It took a whole lot of battling from us in the beginning to where she trusted what I said. . . . It was frustrating, for sure. It was frustrating for both of us."
By the time Lindsey Vonn's knees knocked atop that mountain in Val d'Isere, those frustrations had melted away. Only a team remained.
"He's so real," Lindsey Vonn said. "He's always straight with me. He doesn't tell me what I want to hear. He tells me what I need to hear."
But he also knows enough to listen. Throw out the logistical aspects of Thomas Vonn's role in his wife's career -- the coaching and the equipment evaluations and the tactical advice -- and what remains is something of a sports psychologist. It was Thomas's idea to treat the 2009 world championships, Alpine skiing's most significant event outside of the Olympics, as a test run for Vancouver. Here, then, at the start of the downhill, was a moment from which they could learn.
So Thomas Vonn arrived at the top of the mountain and found his bride, who had seen what she considered to be a perfect run by Switzerland's Lara Gut and knew she had no margin for error. Thomas joked with her, talked to her, "gave me perspective," Lindsey said. She stopped shaking.
Fifteen skiers after Gut left the starting gate, Vonn shot down the hill. The nerves were gone. She won by more than half a second.
'She got up and raced'
Vonn's last Olympics are defined not by the numbers attached to her races -- eighth in the downhill, seventh in the super-G, 14th in the slalom and a DNF in the combined -- but by the following series of events: a violent crash during a downhill training run in which her body looked something like a fish flopping on a dock, an emergency helicopter flight from the Alpine village of San Sicario, Italy, to the host city of Turin, a stay in a hospital during which she alternately contemplated the end of her career and how best to escape, and then a return to skis less than 48 hours later.
The video of that accident, violent and spectacular all at once, has been shown widely in NBC's commercials leading up to the Games. It could bother a skier who has accomplished so much that her one major slip-up is how people view her prior to these Olympics. It doesn't. The gravity of the situation then -- doctors told her she might have broken her back or her hip or both -- gives it weight as she heads to Whistler, the mountain less than 80 miles outside Vancouver that will host the Alpine events.
"It was kind of a defining moment for me, personally," Vonn said. "That was the first time I had ever thought that I might not be able to ski again because of what the doctors were saying. It really was a wake-up call. I never wanted to miss another opportunity, and I never wanted to be in the finish and think that I could've done better or could've worked harder."
When Vonn was little, her mother remembers that it was "like pulling teeth" to get Lindsey to run a mile. Now, she'll do daily spinning workouts on a stationary bike for an hour and 45 minutes. "That's crazy," Krohn said. Her summertime, dry-land training sessions are legendary among her teammates and competitors alike. As former U.S. coach Patrick Riml, who now leads the Canadian team, said: "The talent was always there with Lindsey. Now, the focus is there, too."
"I know we get compared to her a lot, like, 'How come you guys aren't doing this like Lindsey?' " said veteran U.S. skier Stacey Cook, who will appear in her second Olympics in Vancouver. "I'm like, 'I'm never going to be as professional as her.' I have to have a little more fun. I have to do things that probably aren't good for my racing, but they're good for me, for my sanity. That's one way she's changed. She has everything -- everything -- down to the T. It's amazing."
When Vonn was 9, she first met her hero, Olympic champion Picabo Street, at an autograph signing. Street remembers it even now, she said, "not just because she was taller, but because her eyes were bright and attentive and she wasn't caught up in all the little menial stuff. She really paid attention and was absorbing it all."
Vonn and Street eventually became teammates at the 2002 Olympics, by which point Street was something of a mentor to the teenager. Street has watched Vonn develop on the mountain and off, watched her relationship with Thomas Vonn grow both personally and professionally, and has guided Vonn on how to handle various situations -- with sponsors, with life on the road, with the media -- throughout her career. Street believes, though, that the reasons for Vonn's success are fairly simple.
"Love for the fall line is something you can't teach," Street said, referring to the most direct -- and often most frightening -- path down a race course. "She was born with that, and that's never deviated. Lack of fear and a love for the fall line -- that's a combination that's tough to beat."
Street was there in the hospital in Turin in the days after the training crash, when Vonn's injuries were diagnosed merely as bad bruises and she was dealing with a tremendous amount of pain. There was, though, no fear of returning.
"She got up and raced," Thomas Vonn said.
And if she falls at Whistler, no one doubts she'll do the same again.
'Minnesota nice'
"I mean, Michael Phelps probably has no idea who I am," Lindsey Vonn was saying. "You know?"
She said this as a way of minimizing her fame, or certainly the potential for it, back in December, just a few days before she lost that super-G by three hundredths of a second. She sat on a couch in a nook of the grand Chateau Lake Louise, relaxed.
An hour earlier, she had arrived at an appointment with a reporter in a full sprint, racing through an elegant hotel hallway, hurling herself around a corner as if it were a slalom gate. "I'm so-so-so-so-so sorry," she said, because there had been a mix-up about the location of the interview. But instead of heading for the comfort of her room, Vonn had spent 30 minutes frantically trying to make the appointment work.
"Minnesota nice," is how her mother puts it, and it clearly makes Linda Krohn as proud as any Olympic medal would.
Should the next few weeks go as Lindsey Vonn hopes, American skiing will have an engine that could propel it to heights Miller couldn't push it to in 2006, that other stars from the past -- Street and the Mahre twins and Bill Johnson and Tommy Moe -- couldn't hope to attain. Part of that will be due to whatever she accomplishes. But part of that, no doubt, will be due to how she carries herself.
Vonn's model for all this is tennis legend Roger Federer, whom she met at last year's French Open, finagling a pass to his post-championship news conference, sitting in the back, watching how he handled it all.
"The one thing you draw from all of his interviews is how humble he is and how down to earth he is," Vonn said. She was a bit dumbfounded when Federer seemed to know who she was when they were introduced, then again when he recognized her at Wimbledon. She didn't seem to connect that such notoriety could be hers after these Olympics.
"I'm never going to be like Nicole Kidman," she said. "I'm not going to be some big star that everyone will know. For me, personally, I don't think it's going to change very much.
"But I don't know. My husband may have a different view of that."
Indeed, he does, and he has tried to prepare her for it, pointing out the attention she receives after World Cup races in Europe and reminding her that it'll be magnified at the Olympics.
"She likes to be skiing fast, and whatever position that puts her in, she's happy with it," he said.
As Thomas Vonn said this, the light was growing low in Lake Louise. Lindsey Vonn had just lost that super-G by those three hundredths of a second, and was heading to the warmth of the nearby lodge. First, though, she stood in the snow, her skis off and her boots on, signing autographs for kids who leaned up against a temporary fence that separated fans from athletes. Three hundredths of a second had just changed her result, as it could again this month in Vancouver. It couldn't, though, change her.


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