THE 2010 Olympics truly began for Lindsey Vonn last week at a French ski resort nine time zones from Vancouver. They began with world championship gold medals in downhill and Super G, with near misses in combined and slalom, with a surgically repaired tendon in her right thumb after a bizarre encounter with a champagne bottle and, most of all, with a clear vision of her immediate future.
"Getting ready for the Olympics," said Vonn. "Being as physically fit as I possibly can. Continuing to get mentally stronger. There's no social life this summer for me, just preparing for the Olympics."
Vonn, 24, has been climbing toward the top of women's skiing for several years, but her performance in Val d'Is√®re at the World Alpine Championships solidified her position as the Olympic gold medal favorite in two events and as a strong contender in two others. "The margins in ski racing are so narrow that the best racer seldom wins," says U.S. skier Ted Ligety, gold medalist in the combined at the 2006 Games. "But there are exceptions, like when Hermann Maier was on the top of his game and right now with Lindsey Vonn. In those cases the best skier is so good that he or she usually does win."
Vonn made her first World Cup start in 2000 at age 16 and last year won the overall Cup title (a compilation of points from all disciplines), emblematic of the best skier in the world. She leads the rankings again this year. Yet until Val d'Is√®re, Vonn had not won a gold medal in a major global championship (Olympics or worlds), notably caving in to pressure at Bormio in '05 before her Turin Olympics were undone by a crash in downhill training.
"Racing in big events is very hard," says Vonn. "Sometimes I wasn't able to handle it. Winning the overall has made me mentally stronger. Each race mattered so much, and there was so much pressure on each run, but I got through it."
Even at Val d'Is√®re, Vonn fought tension. "On the day of the downhill I was incredibly nervous," she says. "I just couldn't control my emotions." Vonn arranged for her husband and personal coach, former U.S. ski team racer Thomas Vonn, to accompany her to the start area. "It worked," says Lindsey. "And it's something we need to look at, having Thomas there at the start for the Olympics."
Vonn will command a vast share of the pre-Olympic U.S. hype, as many of the performances by her best teammates are giving little reason for medal optimism. Defending men's overall champion Bode Miller, 31, has been battling a left-ankle injury for most of this season and told universalsports.com in Val d'Is√®re that he is leaning toward retirement. (Miller, of course, has done this more frequently than Brett Favre, lending a boy-who-cried-wolf quality to his pronouncements.) Julia Mancuso, 24, the 2006 women's giant slalom gold medalist, is rebounding from back and hip injuries and has been off her best form all season. Only Ligety, who won a bronze in giant slalom in Val d'Is√®re, joins Vonn as an obvious and certain threat for '10.
Vonn is already planning a punishing off-season regimen, including six weeks of training—double her usual—in Austria as part of a program run by Red Bull, one of her sponsors. There is no debating her toughness. Vonn climbed out of a hospital bed to race the day after her Olympic training crash in '06. In Val d'Is√®re, on the evening of her downhill victory, she severed the tendon while spraying champagne from a bottle that had been slashed open with a ski. She underwent surgery the next day and nearly won the slalom three days later, standing second after the first of two runs before crashing on the final run. "I can't put on my pants by myself," Vonn said before the slalom. "But I'm going to do the best I can with what I have."
One year out from Vancouver, Vonn's best looks mighty strong.
DOUBLING UP Vonn won twice at the world championships and was in the running for a medal in two other events.