James Lawton: The all-American girl who even has Canada praying for a lucky break

Lindsey Vonn is the pin-up star of skiing – now the Games need her to compete despite a worrying injury
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The Independent Online

You can just see the snow on the mountains but downtown it is doing what it does so often. It is raining, soft, relatively warm rain but then it once did this for 17 straight days and a visiting photographer from the National Geographic claimed he was driven near crazy while holed up in his hotel room.

Then he woke to the cleanest blue-rinsed sky he had ever seen after a fall of snow and declared he was picturing paradise.

Such is the hope here at the dawn of the XXI Winter Olympics and as fervent wishes go it is rivalled only by the one of the suddenly embattled cover girls of alpine sport, Lindsey Vonn.

The 25-year-old skier from Minnesota arrived here this week carrying whole canisters of the oxygen upon which events such as these depend so desperately.

Set for a possible three gold medals in the downhill, the combined and the Super G – and the biggest potential one-woman Olympic impact since her compatriot, the now forlorn Marion Jones travelled to the Sydney summer games of 2000 – she is by far the most feted athlete here.

She also owns a double triumph guaranteed to provoke wholesale drooling in both the seafront suites of Olympic leaders and the executives offices of NBC television in New York – a Sports Illustrated cover picture and a splash in the magazine's fabled swimsuit edition in successive weeks.

Not even such legendary downhillers Franz Klammer and Jean-Claude Killy enjoyed such fanfare – and the possibility of 10 major sponsorships that would send her hurtling into the Forbes list of sport's super-wealthy. In America, still the key to financial success for any Olympics, they have had to go back to the speed skating sensation of Eric Heiden and the US hockey team at Lake Placid 30 years ago for a measurement of Vonn's importance to the TV ratings.

Unfortunately, going down mountain slopes at improbable speeds is not accompanied by guarantees and Vonn's revelation here yesterday that she is fighting excruciating pain after a training injury in Austria last week was not so much a convulsion as an invitation to panic.

She was on the slopes yesterday, insisting she would fight on despite extreme pain when she put on her ski-boots. The glory – not to mention the loot – would not be easily discarded, a point confirmed by her decision to reduce the swelling on her shin by wrapping it in Austrian cheese.

However, if you want a degree of perspective it is most easily available in the British compound, where 19 skiers and snowboarders owe their presence to the £100,000 whip-round launched by British Olympic Association chairman Colin Moynihan in the wake of the collapse of Snowsport GB – and a government refusal to bail out a key part of a team which is promising to improve sharply on the one medal gleaned in Turin four years ago, a mark that put the hosts of the 2012 summer Olympics alongside Belarus, Bulgaria and Slovakia.

This has not, of course, prevented a message of encouragement from the Prime Minister.

Moynihan makes the stinging comparison between support of the summer athletes over a four year period – £400m – against the £6.5m devoted to the winter athletes, which he points out is just 1.5 per cent of the amount which helped fuel the British bonanza in Beijing in 2008. "It is a not a good effort when you think we are hosting the next summer Olympics and we must hope that success here will bring a new dawn for British winter sports.

"Down the years the Winter Olympics have thrown up success against the odds which have brought great pleasure in our country and with the increasing popularity of winter sports you just have to hope that the disaster which has been averted here will prove to be a good thing, that it will concentrate attention on something that is plainly wrong."

Zoe Gillings, Britain's most promising contender in snowboarding, the most upwardly mobile of events here which could see the American prodigy Shaun White as the biggest winner if the Vonn phenomenon does slew off course, says, "The good thing is that we are here and able to compete, that we have been given the right conditions and back-up and of course we are grateful for all the work that has made it possible.

"My response to the situation is simple enough. I feel privileged to be able to compete at this level in a sport I love and one I know is capturing the imagination of a lot of young people. When I first snowboarded, after skiing on holidays with parents as a youngster, I knew that this was what I wanted to do more than any other sport and it's great to have the chance to help kids in Britain who share my passion.

"As I see it, I've been given a great opportunity and you can be sure I'll be putting in everything I have."

Meanwhile, the hope is that the girl from Minnesota, who learnt to ski on a mountain in her native state of mostly flat, lake-dotted farmland, so small that it has been referred to derisively as a "speed bump" by natives of the big slopes of Colorado and Idaho, will find again at least some of the fitness and nerve that has given her a stunning 31 World Cup victories and made her a double world champion.

It is not, heaven knows, an insubstantial projection given her extraordinary record of resilience. She competed in the Turin Olympics in four events despite a 70mph wipe-out two days before the start which left her with back and pelvic injuries. Her chances were remote, she knew, but she insisted that she wouldn't quit, not after all the work and all the expectations.

She almost severed her right thumb in a mishap which followed one of her greatest triumphs, two gold medals in last year's world championships in Val d'Isère. It happened when she opened a bottle of champagne. Last December in a World Cup downhill she split open her tongue when her knee bounced into her face on a winning World Cup downhill in Lake Louise. Shortly afterwards doctors told her she had broken her arm in a giant slalom crash in Austria.

Her husband, Thomas, a former member of the US Ski team, recalls, "It was such a violent crash it could have been a knee blow-out for sure. When they said broken arm, I was actually relieved. And of course, before we even knew, she 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 on. It is normal."

It's a record which suggests both an uncommon will and absolute competitive integrity, but there is nowhere like an Olympics to foster a good conspiracy theory. Some are leaning to the belief that given the already high expectation, Vonn is both priming interest with her injury crisis – and perhaps also guarding against any excessively negative reaction if she fails to deliver on the promise that has brought such excitement to the viewing-figure projections back in New York.

Inevitably, there are other heroes and heroines waiting to seize the highest ground, not least Vonn's male team-mate, the extrovert, enigmatic Bode Miller, and the Canadian ice hockey supernova and captain Sidney Crosby, who is being spoken of as the natural heir to Wayne Gretzky, aka The Great One. However, for the moment any supplanting of Lindsey Vonn would be more than unseemly. It would be quite shocking.

She is needed here quite as much as the snow. You can make the white stuff. A great and beautiful queen of the mountains really has to be born.