Vonn is face of U.S. Olympic team

  • Sat Feb 6th, 2010 10:16pm
  • Sports

By Mark Starr For The Herald

For American fans, skiing has most always played second fiddle to figure skating at the Winter Olympics. But going into the 2006 Turin Games, U.S. skiing — for the first time in more than two decades — boasted a reigning World Cup champion. So Bode Miller became the face of America’s Olympic dreams.

As a crusty New Englander, I have some sympathy for Miller, who grew up in backwoods New Hampshire and apparently thought the state motto — “Live Free or Die” — justified his quixotic views. Miller, for example, had never made it a secret that he didn’t really care about the Olympics where skiing was — to his eyes — just a sideshow in a giant sports carnival.

But when the Olympics yielded new and lucrative sponsorship opportunities, Miller took everything thrown his way. He took the money — and then didn’t run. In five races in Turin, Miller posted DNFs (did not finish) three times and never finished higher than fifth place. Even worse, he seemed indifferent to his results and oblivious of his fans, as he very publicly partied the Italian nights away.

Miller’s mega-flop obscured the disappointment of another American skier, Lindsey Vonn. Vonn, then a 21-year-old Minnesotan regarded as a rising star, didn’t make the podium either, with a seventh-place finish her best in three races. But unlike Miller, who would be ridiculed, even reviled by sportswriters and fans that had embraced him earlier, Vonn emerged from the 2006 Games as something of a hero — the “anti-Bode.”

It was her eighth-place finish in the downhill that captured the hearts of the nation. In a practice run two days before the race, Vonn took a nasty tumble — she feared she had broken her back — and had to be med-evaced off the mountain. She turned out to be lucky; while every part of her body hurt, nothing was, in fact, broken.

Except perhaps her heart, since she would have to miss the downhill, her best event. While Vonn’s mother consoled her, former American ski champion Picabo Street, who had often mentored the young skier, urged her up and out of bed and back on the mountain like “a real champion”. So Vonn left the hospital, went directly to the downhill course and raced through the pain. Though she didn’t medal, she did leave Turin with a testament to her mettle: the U.S. team’s Olympic Spirit Award.

Now four years later, Bode, at 32, is back — with a second World Cup title and a brief retirement behind him — aiming, though he would never admit it, for some redemption in Vancouver. But Miller is now just part of the supporting cast. It is Vonn who has emerged as America’s preeminent skier and the first face of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team.

Vonn’s is a perpetual smiley face, inclined to radiance regardless of results. Fortunately, her results in recent years have suited her disposition perfectly. Last year Vonn became the first American woman to capture back-to-back World Cup titles and — with nine wins this season, including five out of six downhill races — has a third in her sights.

At just 25 years old, she already has 31 World Cup victories, seventh all-time among women, and is poised to overtake Miller, with 32, as the winningest ski racer in U.S. history. Yet despite all her accomplishments, Vonn offers a constant refrain to mute excessive praise: “I haven’t won at the Olympics.”

As opposed to Miller who publicly disdained the Games, Vonn has made no secret of how much she reveres them. She says winning at the Olympics has been her lifelong dream and “means more to be than anything else”.

So she probably didn’t need any added motivation, though an Austrian coach provided some when he attributed much of her success to a size advantage. Vonn, who cuts a striking, amazonish figure at 5’10” and a 160-plus pounds, bristled at the “ridiculous” insult. “If weight was the key to success in ski racing, everyone would be stuffing their face with food,” she said. “I pride myself on my work ethic. I give 24 hours a day for my sport.”

Her work ethic has improved since the setback in Turin. Vonn recognized that anything less than total commitment to her sport wouldn’t get the job done in Vancouver either. With her husband Thomas, a former ski racer, handling all technical, logistical and business matters — on tour they are known as the “Vonntourage” — Vonn can focus on conditioning and competing. “I don’t want to get to the bottom of the hill and say, ‘I could have done better.’”

This time around, gold — not spirit awards — will provide the only standard for judgment.

Mark Starr has been a national sports correspondent for Newsweek since 1982 and has attended 10 Olympics. This is his last column for The Herald leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Games.