Vonn blazes to downhill gold; U.S. also takes silver
Lindsey Vonn lived up to expectations and won the Olympic downhill Wednesday, and childhood rival and American teammate Julia Mancuso took a surprise silver medal.
In a race characterized by several crashes -- including one to Swedish standout Anja Paerson -- Vonn's bruised right shin proved to be no problem as she sped down Franz's Downhill in 1 minute, 44.19 seconds.
"This is everything I've wanted and hoped for," Vonn said, her voice choked with emotion.
Mancuso finished 0.56 seconds behind, and Elisabeth Goergl of Austria took the bronze medal, 1.46 seconds back.
Maria Riesch of Germany, Vonn's best friend and usual rival of late, finished eighth.
Andrea Fischbacher of Austria placed fourth, Fabienne Suter of Switzerland fifth and Whistler local Britt Janyk of Canada sixth.
It's the third time two Americans have finished 1-2 in an Olympic Alpine race, and the first time in 26 years.
At the 1984 Sarajevo Games, brothers Phil and Steve Mahre took gold and silver in the slalom and Debbie Armstrong and Christin Cooper accomplished the feat in giant slalom.
No American woman had won the Olympic downhill before. Hilary Lindh and Picabo Street both took silver -- in 1992 and 1994, respectively.
Vonn was hurt Feb. 2 during pre-Olympic practice in Austria and had hardly skied over the past two weeks.
Still, as the two-time defending overall World Cup champion and the winner of five of the six downhills this season, she was an overwhelming favorite.
"She had the weight of the world on her," said Vonn's husband and chief adviser, a former U.S. skier who also serves as a personal coach. "People were basically hanging the medal around her neck before the start. That's incredibly hard to deal with."
Thomas Vonn was up at the start before his wife's run to calm her down, and the Vonns embraced in a hug that lasted for 30 seconds when they reunited at the finish.
"It was one of the most clutch runs I've ever seen," Thomas Vonn said.
Mancuso won the giant slalom at the 2006 Turin Games but hadn't finished on the podium since the Olympic test downhill here two years ago. The Squaw Valley, Calif., skier has won only two World Cup downhills in her career, the last nearly three years ago.
"Coming off a back injury last year, I was in a lot of rehab. I knew that I just had to hang on and keep going for it," Mancuso said. "It's really been a tough, long road. I'm happy to be in a position where I feel healthy."
Mancuso was an early starter and still led when Vonn skied.
Vonn, a Minnesota native who lives and trains in Vail, Colo., put on a skiing clinic for all the world to see.
Waiting in the starting gate with the sun reflecting orange off her goggles as she stared down the course, Vonn was a study in concentration. Kicking out of the start without regard to her bruised shin, she increased her lead at the first three checkpoints, kicking up a trail of smoky snow in her wake as if she were a race car, tucking at every opportunity.
Just when it seemed Vonn might go wide, she applied even more leg pressure, shifted her weight and maintained her line.
It wasn't all perfect, however, and Vonn lost nearly two tenths on the bottom, almost getting knocked off balance as she went over a small bump just before the finish.
But it was more than enough for gold, and Vonn collapsed on her back and yelled with joy in the finish area. She then raised herself and placed both arms in the air in triumph.
"It was not the perfect run by any means. But I attacked and made it down. It's awesome," Vonn said, crying.
A few moments later, Vonn's smile turned to a frown, as she watched Paerson lose control off the final jump, getting a huge amount of air and sliding through the finish headfirst.
Paerson bruised her left calf and was shaken up, but otherwise appeared OK, said Sweden team official Uls Lars Emilsson.
Due to the extended run of bad weather in Whistler over the past week, only one official downhill training session was held before the race, and all the fresh snow prevented organizers from creating a perfectly smooth surface. Even with sunny weather on race day, the course appeared extremely bumpy from top to bottom, creating a serious fitness test for skiers' legs -- resulting in several crashes.
"It was a little bit ragged the whole way," Vonn said.
The difficulties were evident from the start as the first skier, Klara Krizova of the Czech Republic, fell midway down and got spun around as she slid into a gate at high speed. Her skis remained attached, though, and she was able to get back up and complete her run.
Several other early starters collapsed in exhaustion upon crossing the finish line, and Dominique Gisin of Switzerland also crashed while landing the final jump. She slid downhill, then was launched back into the air when she hit a bump on the side of the course and landed hard on her back. She sat right up, though, and eventually walked away under her own power.
The next skier, Daniela Merighetti of Italy, fell right before the final jump and went head first through a gate, losing both of her skis. She ended up sliding downhill on her backside, waving to show she was OK to the delight of the fans.
Marion Rolland of France fell before she even got to the first gate, and one of the later starters, Edith Miklos of Romania, hit the safety nets at high speed and was airlifted off the course by helicopter.
Starting 10th, several skiers ahead of the race favorites, Mancuso put down a majestic run from start to finish. Beforehand, she was seen near the start with her eyes closes and her arms out simulating her run in her head.
"I've been practicing a lot of visualization and getting aggressive," Mancuso explained. "I really just had to give my all today."
She must have followed her plan to perfection, because Mancuso increased her lead at each checkpoint and maintained her balance off the big finishing jump, even though as one of the smaller downhillers she was launched high into the air.
"I felt like I was a little out of control," Mancuso said.
At the finish, Mancuso knew right away she had done something special and let out a big scream of delight, pumped her right fist and showed a big smile. Then she put on a pair of black sunglasses and waited for the favorites to come down.
It was a long wait, because all the crashes caused several delays.
Vonn will again be the favorite for the super-combined race Thursday, which was originally scheduled to open the women's Alpine competition last weekend.