Plenty of pressure on Vonn as Olympics approach
If you hear anything about Alpine skiing these days, you hear that Lindsey Vonn is supposed to be the star of February's Vancouver Olympics. Supposed to win medals, plural, not merely one. Supposed to win golds, not any old color. Supposed to sell products for the companies whose logos adorn her hats, her jackets, her skis. And, last but not least, Vonn is supposed to be the camera-ready face of her sport, counted on to boost its popularity in the United States, a country that seemingly truly cares about skiing every, oh, four years or so. "In some ways," Vonn acknowledged, "it is a lot of pressure." Yes, add it all up, and the 25-year-old who lives and trains in Vail, Colo., is essentially being asked to become skiing's answer to swimming's Michael Phelps. Quite a to-do list, huh? "At first, it was a little bit surprising - the expectations, and kind of what everyone was thinking that I'm going to do in Vancouver. What's most important for me is just to stay focused on my own goals, and all I can do is do my best," Vonn said. "I'm not out there claiming I'm going to win so many medals," she added. "I'm just out there trying to ski fast every day, and hopefully I'll have a little bit of luck and get some." The events of last weekend will do nothing to tamp down the anticipation of what could happen in Canada early next year. Here's what Vonn did in three World Cup races over three days at Lake Louise, Alberta: victory; victory; runner-up by 0.03 seconds. "Just what I was hoping for," she said. Oh, and then, of course, there was this little detail, the sort of thing of which sporting legends are made: In the first of those three events, a downhill on Friday, her knee slammed into her chin as she sped down the slope, which made her teeth chomp violently on her tongue, causing blood to pour out of a corner of her mouth as she crossed the finish line. "Pretty gross," she said with a self-effacing snicker. The results at Lake Louise lifted her career World Cup win total to 24, a U.S. women's record that includes 14 victories in downhill, six in super-G and two each in slalom and super combined. Her best showing in giant slalom - aka GS - is fourth place. A two-time reigning overall World Cup champion, Vonn could very well become THE story of these Winter Games, a legitimate medal contender in all five women's Alpine events: downhill, super-G, slalom, GS and super combined (one downhill run and one slalom run). Count Bode Miller among her fans. "She's a great racer," said Miller, who won two silver medals for the U.S. at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and, like Vonn, owns two overall World Cup titles. "She's shown versatility. She skis in all the events. She only hasn't won in GS, and it's only a matter of time until she can win in GS. She certainly has the ability." This will be Vonn's third Olympics, although her stature and the circumstances are wholly different this time around. She was only 17 and unknown at Salt Lake City in 2002 when she finished with one sixth place, one 22nd. In Turin, she was considered an up-and-comer with one seventh place, one eighth, one 14th. Her second Olympic appearance is best remembered for a much-replayed, cover-your-eyes, body-battering crash in downhill training that sent her to the hospital. What that accident didn't do: deter her from racing about 48 hours later. "It was, by far, the most pain I've ever been in, my entire life, and one of the most devastating moments of my career. But I learned a lot from that," said Vonn, known as Lindsey Kildow until she married former U.S. Olympic skier Thomas Vonn in 2007. "I learned a lot about myself, how much I love the sport. ... I wanted to do anything to get back out there. I went from the hospital to the start, and it definitely built my character up." In the intervening years, as the victories have accumulated, she has become the woman to beat - no matter the race, no matter the place. Because of that success, and because Vonn is quick with a smile and an honest answer, and because she has a squeaky-clean image, and because she wholeheartedly embraces the notion of being a role model, and because she speaks German, she is a big deal in Europe, where skiing can be front-of-the-sports-section news. There are those who hope - and believe - Vonn is capable of raising skiing's profile on this side of the world. "She's the ideal package," U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association president and CEO Bill Marolt said. "Americans love winners, right? Americans believe that we have a responsibility to win, almost. And so when you have a really successful athlete like her, the public buys in. They like her." Which is why she will be featured prominently in TV and Web ads in the run-up to and during the Olympics. And why NBC is giving fans a chance to design artwork for her racing helmet. And why she has endorsement deals with Red Bull - rarely is Vonn seen in public without a hat touting the energy drink - Alka-Seltzer Plus and Oroweat, a bread maker. And so on. "There's definitely pressure building," said Thomas Vonn, who acts as a coach and manager for his wife. "That adds another layer to it - all the questions, and the comparisons to Phelps, and things like that. And obviously, that adds pressure. I mean, everyone's talking about five gold medals, even though swimming is different from skiing. It definitely adds things to think about. And then there's sponsors and fans and media demands and other obligations." This is not to say there aren't benefits to being Lindsey Vonn, given her position and popularity. There's money and fame, and, let's not forget, the sorts of opportunities not afforded to just anyone: hanging out with Roger Federer after watching him win Wimbledon, or visiting the set of "Law & Order," or attending the Emmys, or throwing out a ceremonial first pitch at Wrigley Field. Vonn did all those things during her offseason this year. Now it's down to business, though, 2 1/2 months of World Cup racing and Olympic preparation rolled into one, with some product- and sport-promoting mixed in. "It's kind of hard to be Lindsey Vonn and be everywhere at the same time, but she gets it done," U.S. teammate Hailey Duke said. "She's busy. She's doing a lot of stuff. The Olympics are coming up." As Miller or Vonn herself or anyone else immersed in the world of Alpine skiing will tell you, a World Cup title proves sustained excellence, while an Olympic medal can be the product of one very good day. Looked at another way: One bad day - or a handful spread out over two crucial weeks - can force a favorite to go home from a Winter Games without a tangible reward. "It's not like swimming or track and field, where you get in the same pool every single day, and if you're the best guy, you're going to win, more or less," said Ted Ligety, a surprise Alpine gold medalist for the United States at the last Olympics. "Ski racing is so far from that: There are so many light conditions, snow conditions, course conditions, start positions, rocks. ... It's far from guaranteed, even if you're the favorite." Vonn is well aware of that. And she sounds as if she wants to remind others, too. "Having not won a medal, I would be really happy with just one bronze. I'm going to go out there and try to win gold, but, you know, there's a lot of things that can happen in ski racing," Vonn said when the women's World Cup circuit made its lone U.S. stop in Aspen late last month. "I mean, I can get a big gust of wind, and my downhill race is over." Almost as if to demonstrate the validity of that point, she went out the next day, hit a rock with her right ski, and wound up 39th in the first run of a giant slalom, failing to qualify for the second run. The day after that, she skied off-course in the opening run of a slalom. Two events, two disappointments. Her recovery was swift as can be: She went from Aspen to Lake Louise, and once again was dominant. About an hour after the miscue in the Aspen slalom, Vonn emerged from a course-side tent to speak to the media and discuss what happened, then made her way to where fans were yelling her name. She posed for every photo request, affixed her signature to every poster, hat and jacket put before her. And then most famous female skier on the planet chatted with pigtailed girls wearing braces, girls who remind her of little Lindsey, sneaking into the finish area at the 1999 world championships in Vail to ask Bode Miller for an autograph. "It's not like basketball or baseball, and so I do feel an obligation to try and further my sport. I love ski racing. It's a great family sport, and there's so much about it that I love and I want to share with everyone," Vonn said. "So I feel obligated - but also happy - to tell a story. I want to get that message across, and hopefully these Olympics will be my opportunity." Does that sound like someone who feels pressure?