An overwhelming overdog who almost always delivers

An overwhelming overdog who almost always delivers

Published Feb. 17, 2010 10:21 p.m. ET

She zoomed down to the bottom of the hill and just as everyone expected, Lindsey Vonn's name immediately went up in lights atop the leaderboard.

Think of another athlete who comes into every big game an overwhelming overdog and almost always delivers.

Tiger Woods?



But on the same day that Woods announced he would break his monthslong public silence later this week by reading a statement to a handful of reporters - no questions, please - Vonn won a gold medal, then stopped to sign autographs, pose for pictures and hug a few fans before making her way to the drug-testing trailer and then the interview room.

There's no mystery why she's the sport's cover girl and the most decorated American woman ever. Vonn is not just tough as nails and disciplined - sort of the anti-Bode Miller - she welcomes the attention that comes with pride of place.

Coaches like to tell athletes who win to act like they've been there before. Vonn has, which explains why her celebration Wednesday, while years in the making, was remarkably brief: a tumble onto her back, a sharp shriek of joy, a fist punching the sky, a deep bow to the crowd.

She didn't have to be told what to do next. No one knows the drill better. She headed toward a makeshift wooden platform called the leader's box and located no more than a hundred yards from the finish line, where she would accept hugs and kisses from her rivals like the Queen of England receiving her subjects.

Julia Mancuso didn't bother with protocol, though, stepping down off the box and ambling over to embrace her U.S. teammate. Then she stepped deferentially off to one side. Mancuso's run down Franz's Downhill minutes earlier was near perfect, but still not good enough.

Vonn's competition knows all about that, too.

``I thought my time would hold up,'' said Mancuso, a gold medalist in giant slalom at the Turin Games four years ago, but only the silver medalist in the downhill here Wednesday.

Then she caught herself.

``I'm psyched to be on the podium with Lindsey. It's really hard having all that pressure on you to come down,'' Mancuso paused, ``and still win.''

There should not have been any suspense at all, since Vonn has been the best female skier on the planet going on three years now, virtually unbeatable in the downhill and almost as good in the sport's four other disciplines. Like Bode Miller at Turin, she arrived at these Winter Games as a favorite to medal in all five - until two weeks ago, when Vonn suffered a deep muscle bruise to her right shin during a training run and almost said goodbye to the start line.

``I think Julia's run definitely helped,'' Vonn said afterward. ``I knew it wasn't an option to be nervous and I knew it wasn't an option to ski passively. I had to really take it. No one was going to give it to me for free.

``So,'' she continued matter-of-factly, ``I did.''

That singular piece of gold now dangling from her neck will almost certainly make the striking, 24-year-old blonde the first real crossover star of these Winter Games. But while it will provide entree to a new world of opportunities, along with that comes a whole new set of expectations. Even more people will be paying attention to her now.

The clock begins ticking with the super-combined race on Thursday. Yet when asked ``How far can you reach in these games?'' Vonn refused to take the bait.

``The pressure, for me, is gone. I got exactly what I came here to get. That was a gold medal and everyone expected me to get it, but it's not as easy as just saying, 'You can do it.' There's a lot more to it.

``But tomorrow, I'm going to go out there with the weight off my shoulders. ... I don't know how well my shin is going to hold up, but I've got a gold medal and I will go home happy no matter what.''

Who is she kidding?

This is the same athlete, after all, who flew off the training course at the Turin Games going well over 50 mph and crashed spectacularly, yet loaded into the starting gate just two days later.

Last winter, during what was supposed to be nothing more than a photo-op after a win at a world cup downhill at Val d'Isere - ``me spraying the crowd with champagne,'' as Vonn told the story - she grabbed the top of a champagne bottle without realizing the friend who opened it used a ski to chop off the top. The jagged glass nearly cut the flexor tendon in her thumb clean through.

Doctors told Vonn she might want to forget the rest of the season. She told them to stitch the wound up, had a special brace made and went on to win her second straight overall World Cup title instead.

``It definitely hasn't been the best preparation, but it doesn't matter now,'' Vonn said. ``I've worked my whole life for this and even though it hasn't been a perfect ride, it's been an amazing one.''

And it's still a long way from over. Warm weather and rain wreaked havoc with the Whistler schedule for training runs and the races. But they provided Vonn with a light workout schedule and some badly needed rest for the banged-up shin.

``Exactly what I needed,'' she laughed. ``I think somebody was looking out for me upstairs.''

With that, Vonn got up from her chair and headed for the exit. Whatever discomfort the shin bruise was still causing, her confident gait suggested that she wouldn't have any trouble taking things from there.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)