Sam Donnellon: Lindsey Vonn answers questions with downhill gold

Posted: February 18, 2010

WHISTLER, British Columbia - At the bottom of the mountain, Stacey Cook was reliving an Olympic run that was more satisfying than scintillating. The U.S. skier had overcome the fear lingering from her training-run crash, had this time outmuscled the high-octane and bumpy downhill course that had already sent an alarming number of accomplished skiers crashing into gates, into fences, nose-diving into horrific sprawls from a final jump that lay just above the finish line, and the crowd's view.

Suddenly the noise from the stands rose. Lindsey Vonn was on the big screen, rocking in the gate, about to go off.

"Can we watch this?" she asked.

Yes. Let's watch. Let's watch yesterday's gutsy gold-medal run again and again. Let's watch again today when Vonn tries to add a second gold medal in the super-combined, tries to convert hype into adrenaline the way Michael Phelps did in Beijing.

Let's watch into the weekend and into next week, when she competes in three more events. Let's watch what Lindsey Vonn can do now that the avalanche of expectations, fueled as much by her beauty as her brawn, has been shoveled aside.

"I can't tell you how happy I am," she said. There was no need. From the moment she posted her time of 1 minute, 44.19 seconds, the ducts in Vonn's eyes opened as if they were the skies over Vancouver. Almost 2 hours later, after countless interviews, a flower ceremony, even drug testing . . . well, it was still raining.

"I feel like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders," she said. "There was a lot of expectations and a lot of pressure coming into these games and I stood up to that. I fought that today. I proved to everyone that I'm a good skier. That's what I came here to do."

A few things were in the way of that of course, besides the fuss over how she looks in a bikini. She nearly broke an arm in December, she bruised a shin a few weeks before these Olympics during a training crash. She couldn't practice much before getting here, and between the wet weather and a tweak of the injury during training last week, she hasn't practiced much lately either.

We've seen this happen before. Someone gets celebrity before establishing substance, and when expectations don't meet reality, they become a punch line.

Remember Dan and Dave? Bode Miller? Sasha Cohen?

"I think one of the worst things in sport is to watch athletes choke under pressure," said U.S. teammate Julie Mancuso, who won the silver medal. "So for her to be able to rise above that and have that great of a race, it's really inspiring to everyone."

Vonn backed up her beauty with unremitting brawn. She beat up the mountain, bad shin and all, beat up a mountain that had spent the day flicking skiers from it as if they were flies bouncing off windshields. Eight skiers, including Swedish medal hopeful Anja Paerson, never finished. Two others fell but finished. Skiers periodically lay in motionless humps in full view of the stands as medics tended to them. Delays were so common, they were cited as a factor on the disappointing eighth-place finish of Vonn's good friend and main competitor, Germany's Maria Riesch.

Riesch was slotted 22nd, six spots behind Vonn. Racing just before her, Paerson was about to supplant Mancuso when the final jump got her, sending her into spiraling mess and causing yet another delay.

Riesch all but snowplowed her way down the hill after that. She wasn't alone.

"I let the course ski me," Canada's Emily Brydon lamented after finishing deep into the pack. "I didn't ski the course. Every bobble and bump, I got more defensive."

Oddly, Brydon skied right after Vonn, who showed no such trepidation. "I was definitely in pain today," she said. "I just tried not to think about it. But that last jump definitely made me think about it."

Because it was so good on its own merits, Mancuso's run even helped calm Vonn's nerves. "I knew if I skied nervous I wouldn't win anything," she said. "So I went all out."

Vonn looked more like a boxer at prefight instructions as she emerged from the gate.

"Did you think that was impossible 2 minutes ago?" Cook was asked after Vonn blasted across the finish line.

"I don't think anything's impossible with Lindsey," Cook said. "Really, I don't."

She sounded like one of the U.S. swimmers around Phelps two summers ago.

Then again, there was some deja vu to Vonn's words, too.

"Now I'm just going to attack every day, with no regrets and no fear," she said. "I mean, I'm just happy with one. Anything else from here on out is a bonus. I'm going to go home happy no matter what happens the rest of the games." *

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