Courtesy of U.S. Ski Team
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December 1, 2008 — Heading into last year’s Aspen Winternational World Cup ski races, Vail’s Lindsey Vonn was coming off a downhill win in Canada and was expected to dominate that speed event in the only women’s races in the United States each season.
At last weekend’s races there is no downhill, just the two technical events of slalom and giant slalom, but expectations might have been even higher for the winningest American speed skier of all-time.
That’s because Vonn, who en route to winning the overall World Cup title last season captured her 10th career downhill victory – passing Picabo Street and Daron Rahlves on the all-time U.S. list – was coming off a shocking win in the slalom opener in Levi, Finland, Nov. 15.
“There’s no way I could have predicted my first win [of the season] would be a slalom,” Vonn said of Finland, which gave her 14 career World Cup victories, just four shy of Tamara McKinney’s American women’s mark of 18 wins. “It feels pretty good to go back to my roots and know that I can ski well again in slalom.”
On Saturday and Sunday, Vonn bounced back from a bruised left knee she suffered in training at Copper Mountain a little over a week earlier and turned in two fourth-place finishes in the GS and slalom at Aspen – the best results for any of the American racers.
“I'm really psyched about it,” Vonn said of her excellent Aspen adventure. “It was a solid weekend. I was just off the podium on both days, but considering I was on crutches just a few days ago, it's a good weekend.”
Vonn’s tech roots trace back to Buck Hill, Minn., a “mountain” with a whopping 300-vertical-foot drop, where concentrating on tight turns and technical expertise was really the only option. Growing up training in the legendary Erich Sailer's ski camps, Vonn (formerly Kildow) didn’t develop her penchant for speed until her family moved to Vail in the 1990s.
In becoming a dominant force in the speed events of downhill and super giant slalom (super-G), Vonn, 24, has won four straight downhills at Lake Louise, Canada, a glider’s mountain that doesn’t put a premium on technical turns. The circuit heads there this coming weekend.
“If you were to ask me when Vonn would get her first win of the year, everyone would say Lake Louise, but she totally deserved this,” head slalom coach Trevor Wagner said of Vonn’s surprise victory in Finland. “Halfway down she shot way out and was completely off the gate, but then threw it into another gear and hammered all the way to the finish.”
Last season in Aspen, coming off a downhill win at Lake Louise and utter domination of both training runs in downhill, Vonn had been all but handed the downhill win. Instead, she wound up fourth, .05 seconds off the podium (top three) and only half a second from the win, which was claimed by Canada’s Britt Janyk. Vonn was 27th in the slalom at Aspen last year.
Vail’s Sarah Schleper, another Ski Club Vail product who attended Sailer’s Buck Hill camps, has been a tech specialist her whole career. Her only World Cup win came in slalom, but she isn’t surprised by Vonn’s ability to switch from speed to tech and get a win. Schleper attributes it to Vonn’s newfound mental toughness after getting married to former racer Thomas Vonn before last season.
“[Vonn] struggled a lot mentally in the past,” said Schleper, who points to Vonn’s mistake and incredible recovery in Finland. “Something like what happened in Levi in the second run -- although she did make a mistake -- something more drastic might have happened and it might have knocked her out of the run [in the past]. She seems a lot more calm-headed and confident, and she works so hard.”
Schleper finished 13th in the GS Saturday in Aspen – her best result of the young season.
The greatest American tech skier of all time, Phil Mahre, who won three straight overall titles between 1981-83, said a speed-event skier had no chance at winning the overall title during his era, and that Vonn’s shot at defending her overall title (Mahre’s the only American to successfully do so) is greatly enhanced by her return to her tech roots.
“Lindsey started her career as a tech skier coming from the Midwest,” Mahre said. “In today’s World Cup you need to be a speed skier in order to win the overall. Downhill, super-G and GS are the keys to winning the title. If you have the ability to ski slalom, then your chances greatly increase. Back in our time, speed skiers had no chance of the overall as super-G didn't exist. Tech skiers willing to ski downhill were the odds-on favorites to win the title.”
The overall title is considered the greatest achievement in ski racing because racers accumulate points throughout an entire season of consistently excellent skiing. The only other Americans to have accomplished the feat are Bode Miller (2005 and 2008) and McKinney (1983).
Miller has the most wins ever for an American (31), with Mahre second (27), McKinney third (18) and Vonn fourth (14). Only Miller and Vonn are still active on the World Cup circuit, and Miller is nearing the end of his career at age 31. Vonn is really just getting started at age 24, although she competed in the 2002 Winter Olympics at the age of 17, turning in the best result for an American woman (sixth in the combined).
Vonn’s mentor, Street, retired right after those 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, having already won a gold and a silver medal at the 1998 and 1994 Winter Olympics, respectively. Vonn, who crashed in training at the 2006 Turin Winter Games and was hospitalized with Street at her side encouraging her to return and compete, finished out of the medals at those Olympics and is clearly focused on 2010 and finally getting an Olympic medal at the Vancouver Winter Games.
Beyond that, she said she’s likely to only try to make it through the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where she would be 29, or maybe hang on for the 2015 World Championships if they’re awarded to Vail and Beaver Creek, where she would be 30 – not unreasonable for a ski racer, depending on injuries.
An absolute wildcard would be Denver landing the 2018 Winter Olympics, only a realistic possibility if Chicago doesn’t get the 2016 Summer Olympics. But that city’s chances are looking better with the election of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as president.
“It’s definitely possible,” Vonn said of hanging on that long so she could race one more Games (this time likely on home snow at Beaver Creek at the age of 34). “It’s just that I’d rather not be away from my family, and I want to be 100 percent focused on skiing at the same time. Maybe it’s something where if I’m getting to the point where I need to retire, then maybe I just ski right up to the Olympics and kind of do what Picabo did and say that’s the last race and call it a day.”
By then she might be closing in on Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proll’s all-time World Cup victory total of 62 wins, although that would require a pace of five victories a season for the next decade.
“That’s a lot of wins, but you never know,” Vonn recently told Vail Beaver Creek Magazine. “If Denver gets the Olympics and I keep going, it’s definitely possible.”
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