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Vonn top of the world!

Nate Peterson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Lindsey Vonn of the United States, the gold medal winner, right, celebrates with her compatriot Julia Mancuso, silver, during the flower ceremony for the Women's downhill at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer)
AP | AP

WHISTLER, B.C. – Four years after a crash sank her medal chances in Turin, Italy, 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.”

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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 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 put her in the air longer than she expected, but she managed to avoid any major mistakes. She lost two-tenths of a second 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: “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.”

The one person least surprised by her silver medal in the downhill on Wednesday was Julia Mancuso herself.

“I’ve always just known that I would get a medal here,” Mancuso said. “I love the Olympics. My big goals have always been in the Olympics. I’ve just stayed really positive, and just really believed, no matter what is going on around me … that I have the ability to be on the podium.”

What’s gone on around Mancuso the past two winters has been a string of nagging injuries and the coronation of teammate Lindsey Vonn as the best female skier in U.S. history.

It wasn’t a great place to be, after a breakout 2007 season in which Mancuso earned four World Cup wins, 10 podiums and challenged for the women’s overall crown up until the final weekend of the schedule.

Last winter, Mancuso, fighting a bad back that sapped her of mobility and energy, failed to earn a single podium, while Vonn was dominant throughout, claiming her second overall and two World Championship golds. The middling results for Mancuso fed into low expectations for her heading into this season, despite the fact that she already had one more Olympic medal than Vonn – a gold from the 2006 Turin giant slalom.

Mancuso said the added pressure on Vonn allowed her to focus on getting healthy in the offseason and then dialing in her equipment once she hit the snow this fall.

On Wednesday, it all came together.

“Just standing in the start gate, that was finally the only one moment of calm,” she said. “I was so nervous last night, and I was really nervous this morning, and I really couldn’t eat anything. I had to force myself to eat. I’m just psyched I was able to go out there and stick to my game plan.”

Mancuso added that the bumps on course, which caused a number of skiers trouble, were to her liking. It was the kind of variable terrain she grew up skiing at Squaw Valley.

“I definitely saw some of the girls backing off, and complaining about the bumps,” she said. “I was embracing them. I love this course. It’s difficult, fast, the snow is hard, and I just knew I could go out there and put my all into it.”

Vonn said Wednesday that she wasn’t surprised to see Mancuso back on the podium. She added that her husband telling her, via radio, just how well Mancuso had skied focused her before she pushed out of the gates six spots later.

“I did expect her to do well,” Vonn said. “She was second in the training run, and she was fast here two years ago when we had the race here. She’s definitely a big game skier.”

Mancuso certainly has earned that reputation. At 25, she now has two Olympic medals, with the chance of winning more at these Olympics.

While her and Vonn’s careers have peaked at different times, she said Wednesday it was nice to be back in the same spot together.

“It’s really cool,” she said. “I know Lindsey had a lot of pressure coming into these races, and I think the worst thing is for athletes to choke under pressure. For her to be able to rise above that and ski a really great race is just really inspiring to everyone. … Being on the podium, it’s kind of two different stories, but we’re there together and we’re both representing the U.S. and we’re both really proud to be doing that.”

npeterson@aspentimes.com


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