Vonn gets a grip on slalom, then her psyche in final pre-Olympic races
I was surprised listening to Lindsey Vonn talk about how Sunday's World Cup victory in super-G was a "relief" that would "give her confidence" heading into the Vancouver Olympics.
The context to her statements was having had a tactical error Saturday end her five-race win streak in World Cup downhills.
One would think that Vonn's complete dominance of speed events -- downhill and super-G -- the last two seasons would have given her more than enough confidence not to let one bad result prey on her mind. And it wasn't that bad; she was fifth Saturday.
But this is what she said Sunday, after her final race before what her friends have jokingly called the "Vonn-couver" Olympics, given Vonn's stature as Team USA's poster athlete and her potential for multiple gold medals.
"It was a relief ... especially after a disappointing result yesterday. I think I bounced back pretty strong. I just stayed positive. I didn't give up. I fought hard today. I skied aggressively, and that's exactly what I wanted to do not only for today but also to give me confidence going into Vancouver.''
In the past, Vonn has frequently talked about confidence issues and being too nervous at the start. "I haven't had great results in the past two Olympic Games or world championships. I learned today I can do it under pressure,'' Vonn said after winning her first of two golds, in super-G and downhill, at the 2009 worlds.
She has won 18 World Cup races the last two years, nine each season. That is 11 more victories than the No. 2 winner over that period, Vonn's close friend, Maria Riesch of Germany. In the classic Cortina downhill earlier this month, Vonn beat runner-up Riesch by 0.42 seconds; the gap from third to eighth was only 0.3 seconds. And Vonn has kept winning and winning despite a bad thumb injury last year and a bad lower arm bruise this season.
"My arm has been OK,'' Vonn said in a teleconference before the weekend's three races in St. Moritz, Switzerland. "It is getting better every day; it's just not perfect yet. It doesn't seem to be bothering me in downhill, super-G and GS [giant slalom]. It has just been a struggle in slalom this year.''
That is what gave her third place in Friday's super combined -- normally one run each of downhill and slalom -- added significance. Super combined (Feb. 14) is the first women's alpine race of the Olympics, and Vonn clearly is expected to win a medal. A good start would be just the sort of confidence-builder she apparently needs with the downhill (Feb. 17) and super-G (Feb. 20) up next.
The arm injury has made it hard for Vonn to grip slalom poles, especially in the two runs of slalom-only races. In the four World Cup slaloms since the Dec. 28 crash that bruised her arm, Vonn has an 18th, two did-not-finishes and one did-not-qualify (make the top 30) for the second run.
In the combined, she can build enough of a lead in downhill to ease through the shorter slalom, as she did Friday, when the speed part actually was a super-G. She was second in the super-G and 16th in the slalom.
"It was important to make it down not only for points but for my mind going into the Olympics,'' Vonn said Friday. "Now I have that confidence, and I'm definitely going to risk more in the Olympics.''
Vonn understands there is a target on her back in a sport where many things are out of her control -- like the fresh hole on the course she couldn't see well enough to avoid in Saturday's downhill. Hitting the hole caused Vonn to lose her preferred line and a lot of her speed; she still wound up just 1.21 seconds from the victorious Riesch.
"It's hard,'' Vonn said of wearing the bull's-eye of rivals' attention and high expectations. "I think I have been dealing with that for the last while in the World Cup. Everyone is out there essentially to beat me, and it is hard to be consistently fast day in and day out, to be able to stay focused and keep your concentration. I think Vancouver is going to be no different. It is going to be tough to deal with all the expectations not only from the media but from myself.''
Vonn's candor about her psyche is among the many things that make her so appealing. Maybe it is her way of alleviating the pressure she feels. Or maybe, despite the intestinal toughness that allows her to blast down mountains at 70 mph, her mental strength still is catching up to the physical strength of a young woman whom few can keep pace with on skis.
She won the mind game event at worlds last year, opening with the super-G win, shrugging off a missed gate that cost her silver in the combined and then a one-day weather delay before winning the downhill. Vonn should be able to draw on that so her mind is not racing in Vancouver.
Last year, only the ski world was watching. Soon, much of her country -- and of the whole world -- will be.
-- Philip Hersh
Photos: "V'' for victory and "Vonn-couver'': Lindsey Vonn carves a turn in Sunday's super-G, then celebrates on the podium after her final pre-Olympic race. Credit: Christophe Pallot / Getty Images