Women's Downhill: Fearless Vonn sweeps all before to claim first gold

American conquers tough course in style as she begins quest for four Olympic titles
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The Independent Online

The world's best women downhill skiers learned a new definition of futility as some of them pushed dangerously beyond their limits on a fast and increasingly treacherous course here yesterday.

It is to compete with the American superwoman Lindsey Vonn, even when she is complaining of excruciating pain from an injured shin. Vonn's stunning, perfect run not only claimed gold, it set a new standard in the matter of handling the highest expectations in arguably most demanding discipline in all of world sport.

The cover girl from Minnesota is the first American to claim this prize long dominated by the European superpowers of Switzerland, Austria and Germany, and if the details of her triumph are breathtaking, she beat her team-mate Julia Mancuso by 56 hundredths of a second in a time of 1.44.19, it was the aura of unbeatable force which was most pervasive.

If it didn't break the hearts of all who followed her, it pushed those still hungry to fight a certain result beyond the edge – most dramatically the fine Swede Anja Paerson, who, as she challenged Vonn's mark, flew out of control in an airborne wipe out that brought gasps to every corner of the mountainside.

Vonn covered her face as her rival, who owned five Olympic medals, crashed to earth but, miraculously it seemed, serious injury appeared to have been avoided. There were concerns, though, about the late and heavy faller Edith Miklos of Romania – and relief when she was able to speak to her helpers after standing up. But she was then put on an stretcher and airlifted from the course.

Earlier there had been a rash of crashes, with victims including Dominique Gisen of Switzerland and Italy's Daniela Merighetti. Gisen, an airline pilot who once trained in fighter planes, pushed as hard as anyone in the forlorn attempt to match the brilliance of the gold medal winner.

The American, who will compete in four more events with serious hopes of two more golds, was swept by emotion as it became increasingly clear that after days of speculation over her injury she had proved herself to be in a class of her own.

She said: "I was so nervous at the top and I'm so happy now I made it down. This is the greatest day of my life. The course is really, really bumpy, very challenging and I nearly lost it at the top. It's awesome."

Her nerves had been challenged most seriously by her team-mate Manusco, who came out 10th with a beautifully controlled performance. Manusco's time of 1.44.75 swept her into the lead, leaving Britain's Chemmy Alcott to reflect that her promising, and relatively untroubled, run of 1.47.31 could achieve no more than respectability on such a hazard-strewn day.

Manusco stood at the bottom of the run nursing the hope that Vonn's hugely reported discomfort might affect the outcome. She was buoyed, too, by the fact that few other contenders seemed capable of mastering the track.

Austria's Elisabeth Goergl, the bronze medallist, had put in the most telling marker, a nerveless descent in 1:45.65. But if Manusco proved able to meet the demands of the Austrian, she couldn't engulf them – and that, it was apparent the moment Vonn appeared, would have been the requirement for gold.

Vonn came out 16th and that, it was almost clear, was the beginning of the end of the story. She was imperious as she seemed to become one with a course that appeared to fill almost all of her rivals with the deepest apprehension.

Canada's local heroine Britt Janyk had grown up in these mountains, and took her first run as a three-year-old, but all the practice and all the knowledge meant nothing as she finished in sixth.

"You know," she said sadly, "sometimes you just have to accept that there is nothing you can do if someone skis as well as Lindsey Vonn did today. There's been a lot of hype about her problems but deep down everyone knew she was the one who had to be beaten. And today it was just impossible. She was on fire."

The heat was indeed ferocious on a track that was forgiving only to the very best.