She is a rock star there. Everywhere she goes she is recognized and mobbed. People run after her to take photos and get autographs. After races she requires help to wade through the crowds in the finish-line area.
"It's crazy," she says. "Everyone knows who I am here. It's gotten out of hand. It's really nice to have fans here, but it's nice to go home and be anonymous again. Then I come back, and it's a circus all over again."
It's Lindsey Vonn's fault of course. If she weren't dominating the mountain, she wouldn't receive so much attention.
Last Friday, Vonn clinched the overall World Cup title, which goes to the skier who collected the most points during the season. In the process, she claimed the unofficial title of World's Greatest Skier. She also clinched the World Cup downhill title. Of her six World Cup victories this season, five were in the downhill competition; she won her last downhill race by a whopping .61, which, in ski terms, means second place was in another area code.
That gave her 10 career World Cup downhill victories, the most ever by any American, male or female, breaking by one the record held by Picabo Street.
"I don't think she even fully realizes what she's doing," husband Thomas Vonn told a U.S. team official last week.
Vonn reached rare territory for Americans. Only one other American has ever won the downhill title (Street), and only three other Americans (Phil Mahre, Bode Miller and Tamara Mckinney) have ever won the overall title. Vonn is the first American woman to win the overall title since 1983.
"It won't sink in until I get home with the gold medal," she says.
Vonn was saying this by phone from Bormio, Italy, last week as she received a massage at the end of another long day. After traveling six hours by car from one race to the next the previous day, she had gotten up early to make a training run down the mountain in Bormio. This was followed by lunch, a two-hour nap, a dry-land training session (40 minutes on the bike, plus abdominal and balance exercises), a shower, a film session with coaches, a meeting with coaches, dinner with the owner of a ski magazine, and a phone interview with a Salt Lake newspaper reporter while receiving a massage.
"It's a crazy life," she says. "It comes with the territory."
Before this season, the 23-year-old Vonn formerly Kildow was known largely for The Crash. During a training run at the 2006 Olympics, she wiped out in spectacular fashion and was airlifted to a hospital. After watching a replay of the accident on TV while resting with the flu back in the couple's apartment, Thomas was so certain that her injuries would end Lindsey's Olympics that he packed their bags.
Street visited Vonn in the hospital and, after sizing her up, told her, "A real champion would get up and race."
Two days later, Vonn did just that. Skiing in pain, she finished eighth in the downhill, seventh in the Super G and 14th in slalom. She became the first woman to win the U.S. Olympic Spirit Award without winning a medal, as voted by fans, teammates, former Olympians and media.
Crashes were Vonn's M.O. in those days. She was so aggressive and fearless that she tended to redline every turn. She had seven DNFs last season (Did Not Finish as in crash), plus two disqualifications. After winning two silver medals in the World Championships, she injured her knee during a training run and missed the last 10 races of the season.
"It's like I have this aggression, and I just want to go as fast as I can and as straight as I can," she explains. "I've learned my lesson a number of times."
Vonn, 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, has a natural yen for speed, which is why her driver's license was suspended in high school. "I don't drive now," she says. "Thomas drives. I have a really heavy foot. If I drove, I'd get in an accident. Now I try to go fast on the hill and not in the car."
She has skied dramatically better this season by skiing, well, slower, or at least under more control. She has only two DNFs, both early in the season and none in downhill races.
"I redlined it all the time," she says. "I would go straight down the mountain and most of the time ended up crashing. The difference now is I am more consistent. I found that fine line between pushing it too far and taking it easy. And it is a fine line."
She credits Thomas, a former Olympic skier himself, with helping her pick the best lines down the mountain during pre-race inspections. Like her teammates, she also watches videotape of her training runs with coaches to plot the most efficient routes.
Growing up in Minnesota, Vonn had little opportunity to satisfy her need for speed - there simply wasn't enough vertical on the hill and she excelled mostly in the more technical slalom race. Her father, Alan, a former U.S. junior champion before he suffered a career-ending knee injury, saw his daughter's promise, packed up the family and moved to Vail, where Lindsey steadily climbed the skiing ranks and eventually gravitated to the downhill.
With her World Cup titles in combined and downhill this season, Vonn made it America's year. Bode Miller clinched the overall title for men earlier in the week. They are countrymen, but not teammates. Miller severed ties with the U.S. team last spring.
"It's a matter of what works for you," says Vonn. "I like the team. We have an atmosphere. There's always fun to be had with the team. I started in the development program, and I don't think I would have come this far without (the U.S. ski program)."That outlook was one more reason to cheer her success this season.
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