Lindsey Vonn has ski world's number: 1
Nine months after winning both her first gold medal wearing a ski racer's skin suit in the Olympics and a few million men's hearts showing plenty of skin in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (emphasis on the lust in Illustrated), Lindsey Vonn keeps piling up impressive numbers.
-- Three World Cup wins this season for a career total of 36, moving her into a tie for fifth on the all-time list, with only one active skier ahead
-- Five podiums and eight top-10 finishes in the first 11 World Cup races, giving her a slim lead in the overall standings as the circuit takes its Christmas break. Should Vonn win a fourth straight title, she would be alone in second place for that category, trailing only Austrian Annemarie Proell's six.
-- One of Elle magazine's "favorite 25-somethings'' for its 25th anniversary issue.
-- Nineteen career downhill wins, third on the all-time list behind two retired Austrians, Proell (36) and Renate Goetschl (24).
-- 20th anniversary special of Glamour magazine chose her as one of three "game changers,'' along with soccer legend Mia Hamm and basketball star Lisa Leslie, honored for their landmark successes in women's sports.
-- Second place in the Dec. 4 downhill at Lake Louise by only one-tenth of a second despite dragging her left hip on the snow for a couple of seconds after a near wipeout.
-- Six-page spread in December's German edition of Vogue.
And what is the sum of all this?
-- About $6 million annually in endorsement and other income, according to Olympic marketing expert Bob Dorfman of Baker Street Advertising, who figures Vonn is the most richly remunerated U.S. skier -- man or woman -- in history. Her sponsors: Red Bull, Under Armour, Head, Oakley, Rolex, Alka-Seltzer, Vail Resorts, Procter & Gamble, Briko.
-- A similarly exceptional position in terms of recognition for a U.S. skier, as evidenced by ESPN the Magazine having her channel actress Sharon Stone in her notorious crossed-leg scene from "Basic Instinct'' for the cover of an issue eight months AFTER the Olympics.
-- And, most important, a continuing single-mindedness no less consuming than what Vonn needed to put herself in this position.
"I'm as motivated this year as I was last year,'' Vonn said in a conference call a day after sweeping last weekend's two races in Val d'Isere, France.
"I have always been a motivated person. I want to work hard because I want to win. I'm the same person I always was, but I just have a lot more going on outside skiing. The biggest thing for me has just been managing everything to make sure I have time for training and skiing.''
So, as soon as she had ended a post-Olympic celebrity fling by filming a cameo for "Law & Order'' last May, Vonn put herself through an even more grueling off-season training regimen than before, hoping to gain in explosiveness, power and agility. The workout changes were designed to help Vonn get better results in slalom and giant slalom, where she struggled last year and still seeks surer footing.
The unintended bonus was a greater ability to deal with an occasional footloose moment in downhill and super-G.
"I've made mistakes before in speed races and still been able to do well, but never anything like I did at Lake Louise,'' she said.
She was thrown off balance after coming over a bump at about 70 mph, sailed through the air sideways, landed on her hip, found an edge, popped back upright and hurtled toward the finish as if nothing had happened. (For that video, click here. The best view is the replay beginning at 1:52.)
"I was really shocked I was able to stand back up and keep going,'' she said. "I think that has everything to do with my new training program.''
After ending last season with three straight slalom blanks (two failures to finish, one failure to make the second run), Vonn was sixth and eighth this year before straddling a gate in the first run of Tuesday's race in Courchevel, France. A seventh in the most recent giant slalom was her best finish in that event since January 2009.
"I'm in the best shape ever,'' Vonn said.
In a country where Olympians' image is shaped once every four years and has a shelf life that usually is very short, Vonn has become one the few with ongoing appeal. (Yes, it doesn't hurt that she looks terrific in a bikini.) That likely will last at least for the three years until the next Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
By then, Vonn, now 26, may have numbers that define her as not only the greatest women's skier in U.S. history but the greatest women's skier, period. She has shown both consistent brilliance by winning the overall World Cup titles and the ability to seize the moments in the most brilliant spotlight, at the 2010 Olympics (one gold, one bronze) and 2009 World Championships (two golds). There is no athlete better than she in any sport on the U.S. scene.
"I haven't looked at the records, but I feel I am in a good place right now,'' she said.
It's numero uno.
-- Philip Hersh
Top photo: Lindsey Vonn races in Courchevel, France on Tuesday. Credit: Mitchell Gunn, U.S. Presswire. Bottom photo: Vonn on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. Credit: ESPN.