For Vonn, it was worth the wait
The Aspen Times
WHISTLER, B.C. – I’ve got this.
Four years after a crash sank her medal chances in Turin, two weeks after severely bruising her shin in a slalom training run, and after days of delays at Whistler Creekside, Vail’s Lindsey Vonn finally seized her Olympic moment here on Wednesday, claiming the women’s downhill by more than half a second.
There to join her on the podium was American teammate Julia Mancuso, of Squaw Valley, Calif., the surprise winner of a silver medal to go with the Olympic gold she won in giant slalom in 2006.
Between tears, Vonn, 25, said this was the moment she had always imagined for herself since the day, at age 10, that she met former U.S. Olympic champion Picabo Street at a Minneapolis ski shop. On the morning of the biggest race of her life, a wave of intense focus washed over her before she pushed out of the start house.
“I felt nervous, but I was focused and I knew what I had to do,” said Vonn, who finished in 1 minute, 44.19 seconds. “Just to be able to come back today and fight hard and win this gold medal, it’s everything I worked my whole life for. I’ve worked hard and I knew that in the starting gate. I knew that I had to take it. I knew that I had to ski aggressively, otherwise someone else was going to win that gold.”
Her husband Thomas, a former Olympian himself with the U.S. team and Vonn’s most trusted skiing adviser, said he had never seen his wife so calm before a big race.
“The expectations and the weight of this were incredible,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect her somehow. You still have to get up there and do it on race day. But she was much more composed than I thought she was going to be.
“Just the fact that I was supposed to be at the start with her and she kind of said, ‘I got this.’ I knew her head was in the right place.”
Mancuso yet again showed why she has earned a reputation as a big-race skier. Before she had landed on a World Cup podium, she claimed a World Championships medal, in 2005. And before she had won a World Cup race, she claimed her Olympic gold in 2006.
On Wednesday, racing 10th, she held the early lead, but finished 0.56 seconds back of Vonn, with Austria’s Elisabeth Goergl taking the bronze medal, 1.46 seconds back.
“Just being on the podium is really a big accomplishment,” said Mancuso, whose last top-3 result came at Whistler in a World Cup two seasons ago.
A nagging back injury the last two winters, however, stymied her results and made her question her desire to ski at such a high level.
“Even last year, I just wasn’t having fun,” she said. “I was having a hard time, not so much getting out of bed in the morning, but right after the hill, just back in the room, I couldn’t do anything. I re-evaluated what was really important to me, and got strong and rehabbed and skied a ton this summer and just from that I was able to gain the confidence and feel great. The first day on snow I was feeling awesome. No injuries at all. Since then, it’s just been finding the right equipment and finding the speed in the race.”
Doing so Wednesday, with only one training run for the women, and not even a full one at that after rescheduling because of wet weather and fog, proved difficult for a number of skiers.
Sweden’s Anja Paerson, a two-time World Cup champion and a medal threat, skiing five spots after Vonn, looked like she might nose Mancuso out for the silver before a spectacular crash off the “hot air” jump at the course’s finish.
The International Ski Federation (FIS) said it planned to shave the final jump for the downhill run of today’s women’s super combined event, after it sent skiers farther than expected Wednesday as a result of rain freezing overnight.
Six skiers out of 46 failed to finish, and another, Glenwood Springs’ Alice McKennis, was disqualified after it was ruled she missed a gate after swinging too wide on a turn.
“We don’t think it was dangerous,” Atle Skaardal, the FIS director of women’s races, said of the jump afterward. “It’s a long jump for sure, but the speed was higher today than in training due to all that rain that froze overnight. It was very icy.”
Vonn said the jumps on course put her in the air longer than she expected, but she managed to avoid any major mistakes. She lost two tenths on the bottom split, the only part of the course where she was slower than Mancuso.
The performance put to rest any doubt that a painful shin would derail her Olympics, the same way the violent crash in downhill training in Turin kept her off the podium.
She said all the weather delays at Whistler had been fortunate for her, given the status of her shin, which she has treated around the clock with everything from Lidocaine and ice to wrapping the bruised area in cheese since her fall on Feb. 2. The women were originally supposed to open racing Sunday with the combined.
That race has been rescheduled to today, and now that she has her gold medal, the immense pressure she felt entering these Winter Games is gone, Vonn said.
After months of hype, all it took was a little less than two minutes.
“I got the gold medal that I came here to get,” she said. “Now I’m just going to attack every day, with no regrets and no fear.”
After swooping into the finish and seeing her name atop the leaderboard, Vonn collapsed into the snow, before getting back up and raising both arms skyward.
The tears began to flow after that.
In the midst of post-race interviews, she and her husband snuck off and leapt over metal barriers, heading to the grandstands on site to bask in the moment with Vonn’s family.
“I’m overwhelmed,” she said. “This is the best day of my life, by far. Having my friends and family, and my husband. It’s been an interesting couple of weeks.”
She added: “I can’t tell you how happy I am. I was pretty much bawling the last two hours straight, which is not typical for me. It felt good. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. There was a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations coming into these Games and I stood up to that and fought back today and I think I proved to everyone that I’m a good skier. And that’s what I came here to do.”
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