Lindsey Vonn is the one to beat in Vancouver
Lindsey Vonn was going downhill so fast -- in a wholesome, epic, lucrative way -- there wasn’t time to wait for her to actually win an Olympic medal.
Lindsey’s script was penned months ago by writers of the round table and should her skis take turns for the Whistler worse, well, in the snow business there’s always whiteout.
Usually in America you need to first cry through your national anthem to activate the Olympics gold card, but Vonn’s forward momentum could not be contained.
She is the drink of these Vancouver Olympics (Red Bull), the watch (Rolex) and the face (Cover Girl).
“Lindsey is authentic,” David Neal, NBC’s executive producer for the Olympics, says of her star power. “She’s very telegenic. She’s the best woman skier in the world. Lindsey has the whole package -- athletic ability, personality. She’s the sort of person that is made for television.”
Vonn is 25, already transcendent, already a commodity and already the greatest female U.S. skier in history.
The “yodelers” and cowbell ringers overseas already know what prime time in Peoria is about to discover. Vonn has 31 World Cup victories -- an astonishing nine this season -- two shy of breaking Bode Miller’s American record of 32.
Vonn ranks eighth on the all-time World Cup victory list, amazingly halfway to Austrian Annemarie Proell’s record of 62.
Let’s cut, though, to the chalet scene, with Vonn looking forlornly at her empty Olympic trophy case.
At age 17, she finished sixth in combined at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Four years later, a head-over-boots training crash in the Italian Alps probably cost her something shiny and special.
Vonn, battered and bruised, returned from her hospital bed to finish eighth in downhill, seventh in super-giant slalom and 14th in slalom.
Since Italy, she has woman-handled the World Cup circuit, capturing two overall titles. Her bib number is a bull’s-eye.
“Everyone is out there essentially to beat me,” she said on a pre-Olympics conference call from Switzerland before she won the super-G at St. Moritz. “It’s hard. It’s hard to be consistently fast, day in and day out. Vancouver is going to be no different. It will be tough to deal with all the expectations, not just from the media, but from myself.”
NBC has spent the year filling film canisters with background. A five-event skier, Vonn is being promoted by some as the Michael Phelps of the Winter Olympics.
Photographers have dressed her up in evening gowns for cover shoots. Travelers in window seats know her as the cover girl on Midwest Airlines Magazine.
Vonn has traded quips with Conan O’Brien and made Internet lists that chronicle such relevant things as “World’s Hottest Athletes.”
Vonn is actually from a snowy background and hails from chilly Minnesota, the former Lindsey Kildow, wedded to former ski racer Thomas Vonn.
Lindsey resents being labeled the “anti-Bode Miller,” but her fresh face and toothpaste smile serve as the anti-venom to Italy, where Miller flopped on snow as he flipped us the proverbial bird.
Scandal and Vonn have yet to be introduced. OK, her marriage to an “older” former ski racer after the 2006 Games caused an initial ripple.
“We as a staff are very protective over the kids,” U.S. women’s Coach Jim Tracy acknowledged. “And when boyfriends come in, we’re very protective over athletes to make sure they’re not distracted and taken out of their games, so to speak.”
Love, in Lindsey’s case, has been a splendored thing, with Vonn’s career going bells and whistles after matrimony.
“He’s the main reason why I’ve had a lot of success the last couple of years,” Vonn recently said of Thomas.
The Vonns look like wedding cake figurines. Also, they did not bolt the U.S. Ski Team to run their own program. Lindsey still trains with America and offers inspiration and instruction.
“She’s so professional,” U.S. teammate Stacey Cook said. “Everything down to what water bottle she’s drinking out of is planned, prepared. That’s the amazing part. We get to ski with the best skier in the world every day.”
Kaylin Richardson, also from Minnesota, says Lindsey is a game-changer. Watching Vonn viciously slice-and-dice a training run a few years ago, Richardson uttered in awe, “Oh my gosh, she’s skiing like a dude!”
Then, Vonn fixes her hair and becomes a runway model, the kind of glamour and grit combination that makes her so sex-appealing.
A rep for one of her sponsors called Vonn “the perfect storm of nice.”
NBC isn’t worried about her doing a pub crawl in Whistler.
“I want to be a good example,” Vonn said during a lengthy breakfast interview with The Times last summer in Los Angeles. “I think it’s rare in this day to find people who are honest and moral and aren’t arrested for something. Know what I mean? It’s hard for kids to look up to people because you never know what they’re going to do. I’m not out there just playing the game. I’m out there trying to do a good job and be a good person. That’s really important.”
TMZ, give it your best shot.
Last February, she cut tendons in her right thumb grabbing a broken champagne bottle while celebrating victory at the world championships in France.
She read one Facebook comment that boasted: “you’re the best party girl ever! That’s awesome.”
Vonn was horrified.
“That’s not who I am, that’s not what happened, and it really bummed me out,” she said. “It was a freak accident; it wasn’t that I was partying so hard. It was 6 o’clock at night, right after the awards ceremony. I had zero alcohol, whatsoever, in my body.”
Austrian coaches were quoted as saying Vonn was so successful in speed events because she was heavier than other skiers.
Lindsey answered by sweeping three races in Austria, afterward noting, if weight was the key, “everyone would be stuffing their faces with food.”
Vonn is so protective of her image she won’t drink a cup of coffee that she herself hasn’t ground and poured.
“What if a deranged fan wanted to get you, put a powder in your drink?” she said. “I will not touch anything I haven’t already seen before.”
The problem with setting someone up for Olympic success, as Miller learned, is that it can be a powder keg.
Thinking Vonn can be Phelps is a slippery slope because ski racing and swimming are so different.
For Phelps, the pool size never changes. In ski racing, every course setup is different. A change in snow conditions, or a temperature drop, even what bib number you draw, can win you -- or cost you -- the gold.
“Michael competes in an extremely controlled environment,” Tracy, the U.S. coach, said of Phelps. “When you’re outdoors, Mother Nature is always going to decide how the game is played. Always. The weather plays so much of a role in what we do and how we do it, and when we do it.”
Vonn is considered a medal contender in five events: downhill, super-giant slalom, combined, giant slalom and slalom.
In reality, she will be a prohibitive favorite in two events: downhill and super-G, with a chance to medal in the super combined.
Vonn is a longer shot in the technical events -- GS and slalom, mostly because of a left arm bruise suffered during a crash in December that causes discomfort when she plants her pole on gate turns.
She is trying to temper the talk.
“My life goal is to win a gold medal,” she said. “But if I never win an Olympic medal, I’m not going to say my career was pointless.”
David Neal, the NBC producer, sees the rainbow in Vonn’s story arc.
That horrific training-run crash may have cost Vonn a medal at the 2006 Turin Games, but her return won Vonn profound respect and set the television table for, well, now.
“It’s impossible to imagine anyone could even get out of bed after that,” Neal said of her crash in Sestriere. “The journey culminating for her in Vancouver began four years ago. This is an athlete that is absolutely driven.”
If you could put a title on Vonn’s reality show?
Neal: “Call it ‘Unfinished Business.’ ”