The Lindsey Vonn phenomenon
America's sweetheart has taken Vancouver by storm – the legion of fans in her 'Vonntourage' have even renamed the Games in her honour. As the skier resumes her medal charge, James Lawton tells the remarkable story of her journey to the top
Saturday 20 February 2010
She is the goddess of the Winter Olympics – the ones here that have been widely re-christened the Vonncouver Games because of the impact of Lindsey Vonn – and she is also the mistress of hype.
But then you can take self-advertising only so far when your obligation is to hurtle down a mountainside at speeds exceeding 65mph and so there was a moment this week when the 25-year-old cover girl from Minnesota removed the last suspicion that she is anything other than the invention of her own competitive character – and genius.
It happened early on Thursday afternoon when her hopes, brilliantly created by her second superb downhill run in 24 hours, of winning another straight gold in the combined event (in which skiers complete the downhill course, followed by the slalom) disappeared in a flurry of snow and a large mound of angst.
She clipped a slalom gate by the finest margin as she was about to enter what seemed certain to be a final winning flourish over the lower slopes. An entire mountainside first gasped, then fell silent.
It happens like that when a goddess of sport falls from a place she has created with unique force.
However, if a goddess can fall she can also find redemption, and this is why overwhelming attention will again centre on Lindsey Vonn later today. She goes in the Super G – a blend of downhill and giant slalom, requiring both raw speed and technical assurance – which is the third of five attempts to win Olympic medals. Only four are now within her reach but, as we will see today, she is already more than the sum of any mere counting of medals.
In one of the toughest disciplines in all of sport she has created an aura that was scarcely scratched by Thursday's exquisite agony.
Indeed, in a way it may only prove to accentuate the quality that has long distinguished a skier who improbably found her inspiration on a little hill in the lake and farm country of her native Minnesota.
For the best part of a week her talk of an injured shin bringing "excruciating" pain was widely derided. The charge was that it was part hype, part an attempt to reduce the expectations created by two successful World Cup titles, a record 31 wins, and a list of 10 big-time sponsors. But when her moment came on Tuesday, when she appeared 16th in the draw of the world's best downhill skiers, she was what those who know her best have long claimed.
She was a fighter who had refined her talent to an untouchable degree.
Her sister Karin leads testimonials to the fierce spirit that carried her through a difficult childhood when her parents split up – after taking her from the lowland of Minnesota to the rocky mountain highs of Colorado – and she was quickly pronounced the most likely young American woman to win the nation's first downhill Olympic gold.
There was also the end of her relationship with her hard-driving father Alan, who fiercely objected to her marriage to Thomas Vonn, a member of the US ski team 10 years her senior.
"So many times I think everything has been very stressful for Lindsey along the way," says Karin. "But she's learned to cope – and she doesn't look back. She just keeps going."
What has emerged on Whistler Mountain this week is the confirmation of an extraordinary will to succeed, one that was strongly hinted at four years ago at the Olympics of Turin when, against the advice of the doctors, she insisted on competing despite serious back and pelvic injuries suffered in a training wipe-out.
Such intensity is the hard and now indisputable centre of an image which often suggests something far more detached from the basic imperative of winning. She came into these Olympics with a burgeoning portfolio of glamour pictures, including a Sports Illustrated cover and a splash in the magazine's iconic swimsuit edition. Because of this there was a widespread impression that somehow she was not to be taken with ultimate seriousness.
Then she began to ski. Then she explained why no-one woman skier had ever hit such a seam of brilliantly sustained form. You do not win 17 World Cup downhill races without an absolute concentration of body and mind and if the shin injury was hype, or some kind of psychological ploy, it became irrelevant with her first imperious sweeps down the mountain.
Here was an athlete who had come to seize her moments with an absolute commitment and with a competitive edge that was hardly revealed in a series of Facebook jottings so bland they might have been alternatively the offering of a high-school pageant queen or a phone saleswoman. One prime example, on a day of disrupted practice, reads, "Just sitting in my condo baking some banana bread – and watching the rain come down."
Another was more in tune with the idea of someone pursuing every commercial possibility at a time of maximum exposure. It said, "Hi everyone... www.lyndseyvonnshop.com has just opened. It is a website where fans can buy cool 'Vonntourage' T-shirts, sweatshirts etc etc... new stuff will be added all the time so check back often. Also if you guys have any suggestions or good design ideas let me know... we're always looking for cool ideas."
And, "Hi... the Sports Illustrated magazine is out and Lindsey is on the cover. Hope you like it."
Froth, dollar-grubbing froth, no doubt, but unquestionably it eddies inconsequentially around a rock-like substance. The real Lindsey Vonn, we know well enough now, operates not in a sales pitch or a glamour studio but in the brilliant light and the sudden shadows of a ski run.
Her first coach lamented her natural style, said she skied like a turtle, and her husband offers a litany of disaster and cruel injury while describing her ascent to the peak of performance which came when she won her downhill gold last Wednesday.
"Nothing can stop her," says Thomas Vonn. "Place any difficulty in her way and she will find a way to beat it. You tell her she needs to do something to improve and she will weigh it – and then do it if she can see the benefit."
Her mother Linda reports that when the family moved from Minnesota to Vail in Colorado, she drove ahead with Lindsey. When they hit a blizzard outside Denver the mother wanted to stop, the daughter insisted they press on. "I can see the lines fine," she declared.
"Sometimes I can't believe we spent so much time on one child," says Linda, "but it worked. The other kids were fine and Lindsey was so good we had to try."
Vonn's greatest discovery was that talent alone would simply not be enough to achieve her ambitions. She had to get stronger physically and her suspicion was confirmed when she went bike riding with Julia Manusco – her US team-mate who has provided a fierce challenge here with two silver medals – in the mountains around Lake Tahoe, California.
Manusco's father set the pace and Vonn was soon floundering. She recalled recently, "It was the first time I'd ever done a bike ride, apart from getting around my little flat hometown in Minnesota. I fell behind them by, like, five miles and I'm out in the middle of nowhere and Julia's beating me and I look like a fool. I was totally embarrassed."
She says now, "I'm not even the same human being I was back when I did that ride with Julia. I know that talent will only get you so far. I know what other US skiers do in training. I know I work harder. I know what Maria Riesch [her conqueror in Wednesday's combined] does; road bikes for three or four hours. I bike for two or three hours, but much harder."
She is much given to emotion, fighting back the tears when she stood at the bottom of Whistler Mountain contemplating her first Olympic gold medal ceremony after a run of such poise and certainty it seemed to mock the desperation and wipe-outs of her rivals on a track that was deemed so dangerous it was sharply modified before the following day's combined action.
Then she revealed she was fighting on the edge of her own disaster for most of the descent. "I'm so happy I got down," she said. "This is the happiest day of my life."
When she said that, with such intensity, it was not hard to believe you were also getting a glimpse of the less happy ones, when her parents split up and her father challenged bitterly her choice of a husband and created an estrangement untouched by the fulfilment of the day he had driven his young daughter towards so remorselessly.
What you were seeing, perhaps, was the shadow of the darker side of ambition, the kind that might have played across the vision of a young woman baking banana bread and watching the rain soak into the mountains and wondering if indeed she would ever be the goddess of winter sport.
What to watch this weekend
*Alcott v Vonn in the Super G
Chemmy Alcott is Great Britain's medal hope again, but, as ever, will face stiff competition from American Lindsey Vonn, who will be looking to bounce back from her failure in the super-combined this week.
Saturday 6.00pm, BBC 2 & Eurosport
*Ice hockey: US v Canada
This grudge match will be about far more than simply who tops Group A. Centre Sidney Crosby is Canada's star man to watch in the small hours.
Sunday 12.40am, BBC 2
Best of the rest
*Freestyle skiing (women's aerial)
The 24-year-old Sarah Ainsworth represents Great Britain in the qualification heats.
Saturday 6.00pm, BBC Sport website
*Great Britain men's curling
David Murdoch's team cannot afford any more slip-ups in round-robin matches with China and Canada.
Saturday 3.00am, BBC2
*Alpine skiing (men's super- combined)
Switzerland's Didier Defago is aiming to win his second gold of the games.
Sunday 5.30pm, BBC Sport website
The final two runs of the two-man event get under way.
Sunday 10.45pm, Eurosport
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