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

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.

News
peopleHere's what Stephen Fry would say
Sport
Serena Williams holds the Australian Open title
sportAustralia Open 2015 final report
Sport
footballLive: All the latest from today's Premier League matches
News
Nick Clegg playing 'Palin or prom queen'
newsNick Clegg on TV's The Last Leg
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
This weekend's 'Big Hero 6' by Disney Animation Studios
arts + ents
News
i100
News
Budapest, 1989. Sleepware and panties.
newsDavid Hlynsky's images of Soviet Union shop windows shine a light on our consumerist culture
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
News
In humans, the ability to regulate the expression of genes through thoughts alone could open up an entirely new avenue for medicine.
science
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee