Lindsey Vonn is on the verge of being recognized as the greatest women’s skier in U.S. history.
You could have seen this coming four years ago, until Vonn hit a speed bump a lot bigger than the molehill outside Minneapolis where she learned to ski. It was a year before the last Olympics, when Vonn –- then Lindsey Kildow –- went into the world championships as the 20-year-old sensation who was chewing up the world’s gnarliest downhill courses.
But there was too much going on in her head then. Vonn felt not only the pressure of sudden expectations but the emotional tension of a strained relationship with her father, who had managed her career so closely he often crossed the line between support and stage managing.
(Amateur psychology, 101: Alan Kildow was struggling to deal with the idea that her boyfriend, Thomas Vonn, a former World Cup skier, was playing an increasingly important role in Lindsey’s life. The couple was married on Sept. 29, 2007).
So Vonn finished 9th in her first race at those 2005 worlds, fled the media to go cry in her hotel room, then graciously came down an hour later to talk with me and a couple other U.S. reporters who had made the trip to Italy.
Then she finished fourth in her next race. And fourth again in her final race. She came to talk with the media, broke down in tears, walked away, then returned for questions she answered with a muffled sob or a forced laugh.
"Tears can only speak for me," Vonn said.
Fast forward to now, the year before the Vancouver Games, and you find a confident, celebrated Vonn heading into the biennial world championships that began Tuesday in Val d'lsere, France with the women’s Super-G.
She could win that race.
She could also win the downhill, the combined and the slalom.
Or she could come away without a gold medal, so unpredictable are ski results in events like the world championships and Olympics, so demanding is it for her to ski all five disciplines in the next 12 days.
"I’ve gotten a handle on media and expectations," she said last week. "But I’m pretty hard on myself. I expect a lot from myself. I would like to win a gold medal as much as other people would like to have me win one. There’s definitely a little pressure."
It was a triumph for her just to compete at the 2006 Olympics after a horrific crash in downhill training. Talk about getting back on the horse: she skied all five events, finishing eighth in the downhill.
In 2007, she broke the world meet jinx with silvers in downhill and Super-G. Then came winning the World Cup overall title last year. That proved to Vonn she had the consistency to be a contender in every race –- and the ability to handle the tension of having the battle for the title go down to the penultimate race.
"The final week of last season was incredibly difficult," she said. "But I has some of my best results that week. The experience definitely matured me in a lot of ways."
That showed when she hit a rough patch in mid-December after getting this World Cup season off to a fast start. Vonn rebounded with stunning results in the past two weeks and arrived at the worlds (via private jet provided by Red Bull, one of her sponsors) having won the last two World Cup races.
Her five victories this season have tied Vonn with Tamara McKinney atop the all-time victory list (18) for U.S. skiers on the World Cup. Last year, Vonn passed Picabo Street as the all-time U.S. leader in World Cup downhill wins.
This season, Vonn also has revitalized the gate-skiing roots she established years ago on the 310-foot vertical drop of Buck Hill in Minnesota by winning her first two World Cup slaloms.
Her closest rival in the World Cup standings, Germany’s Maria Riesch, virtually conceded this year’s title to Vonn -– with 12 races to go! -– after she opened a nearly 200-point lead with victories in slalom and Super-G last weekend.
Vonn is a one-woman army for the U.S. team in Val d’Isere. In 22 World Cup races this season, she has nine podium finishes; no teammate has any. She has another eight top-10 finishes; the rest of the team has three.
A win next year on the Olympic slopes of Whistler, B.C. would leave her no peer among U.S. women skiers, present and past.
"I can’t help but dream about what Whistler could be," she said.
She is a woman on the verge of a nerveless breakthrough.
-- Philip Hersh
Photo (top): Lindsey Vonn celebrates winning the women's Super G race on Sunday. Credit: Mitch Gunn-US PRESSWIRE
Photo (inset): Lindsey Vonn. Credit: Olivier Morin / AFP / Getty Images