Downhill has nothing on middle school for ski racer Lindsey Vonn |

Downhill has nothing on middle school for ski racer Lindsey Vonn

Jon MaletzAspen, CO Colorado

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

ASPEN U.S. Ski Team standout Lindsey Vonn was on edge Tuesday – and she wasn’t on skis.The 23-year-old paced backstage. Her hands were clammy, and she admitted to teammates Libby Ludlow and Kaylin Richardson that she was experiencing pre-race jitters. But Vonn, formerly Kildow, wasn’t standing in the start gate contemplating her next run at downhill gold. Rather, she was preparing to address an Aspen District Theatre packed to the back of the balcony with awestruck middle-schoolers.

The sight was enough to make Vonn, one of the world’s most accomplished young skiers, a bit anxious.”I have never been in front of that many kids at one time,” Vonn said. “I was nervous, but they were really excited. The cheering was deafening.”Vonn, Ludlow and Richardson fielded questions from students and John Rigney, the Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president of sales and events, for about 45 minutes. They touched on topics ranging from prerace preparation and memorable crashes to Vonn’s unusual prize for winning a 2005 downhill in Val D’Isere, France – it was a cow named Olympe (one boy in the crowd asked if she ate it).Without fail, every response elicited enthusiastic applause. On one occasion, however, when Rigney mentioned Vonn was from Vail, a smattering of boos filled the theatre. Vonn cajoled the crowd, however, when she said her favorite part about racing in Aspen was, “Being right here.””It’s times like today that get you fired up and make you more motivated to do your best,” said Vonn, moments after a mob of autograph seekers surrounding her on the theatre steps dispersed. “If you didn’t realize you were in America, you realize it now.”Vonn is bruised but confident as she and her teammates hit Aspen – the only American stop on the women’s World Cup circuit this season – to compete in the first downhill here since 1995. Women last competed on the vaunted Ruthie’s course in 1988. Friday’s downhill precedes Saturday’s super G and Sunday’s slalom.

In Sunday’s super G in Lake Louise, Alberta, Vonn approached a gate with too direct a line on the course’s top section, turned sharply, slipped and slid off course. After crews untangled her from the safety netting, she emerged with a bruised hip.The incident came one day after Vonn reaffirmed her Canadian downhill dominance, besting her nearest competitor by nearly eight-tenths of a second en route to winning in Lake Louise for the fourth straight season.”I skied well and won by a good margin,” Vonn said. “… I’ve crashed a lot, so it doesn’t really affect me. I just do it too often.”Vonn caught an edge while training for the 2006 Olympic downhill in Italy, then launched off a jump going backwards. She flew about 15 feet and landed awkwardly, slamming her head as she slid to a stop. She told students Tuesday that she thought she had broken her back; in reality, Vonn suffered a hip injury and spent the night in a Turin hospital. She regrouped in time to compete two days later, and finished eighth.Vonn sustained a right knee injury in a fall during slalom training in February at the World championships in Are, Sweden, ending her season one month prematurely. Those accidents are mere afterthoughts now as Vonn looks to build on a breakout 2006-’07 season in which she won three times and finished third (teammate Julia Mancuso was second and Austria’s Renate Goetschl first) in the final downhill standings.”I know I say this every year, but I think I’m stronger than I’ve ever been before,” Vonn told The Aspen Times in November. “I’m feeling more comfortable and confident every year.”

She may have been tense Tuesday, but Vonn has been the opposite on the hill early this season. By virtue of her Lake Louise victory, she leads the World Cup downhill standings and is 10th in the chase for the overall title thus far. Teammates Mancuso and Resi Steigler are sixth and 11th, respectively.Kristina Koznick, who won bronze in a 2004 slalom, was the last American to reach the podium in Aspen. Vonn expects that to change this weekend.”I definitely expect to see a lot of us in the top 10, the top 5, even the top 3,” she said. “I’m definitely coming in with a lot of confidence.”Vonn asked the youngsters in the packed theater to make her a sign and come out to support the team this weekend. In return, she hopes to give them a medal.

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