Skier Lindsey Vonn is top U.S. hopeful at 2010 Vancouver Olympics

Lindsey Vonn, 25, is living up to expectations at the Winter Olympics -- already winning the downhill gold and the super-G bronze. She has two more chances at the podium: the giant slalom and the slalom.
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The high temperature of 4 degrees had come and gone one Sunday afternoon last December at the base of a mountain in Lake Louise, Alberta, when Lindsey Vonn found her husband, Thomas, and buried her head into the shoulder of his puffy ski jacket.

"I'm so depressed," she said quietly. He put his arm around her.

"Hey," Thomas Vonn said. "That's awesome."

There, in a tiny six-word exchange with her husband, everything was on display: Vonn's talent and potential, her desire and competitiveness -- and, more than anything, her expectations, both internal and external. She won two races that weekend and came within a blink of another, the beginning of a season that now includes nine pre-Olympic wins from a skier who has won the last two World Cup overall titles. She is widely considered, as Canadian ski federation president Gary Allan said, "just the most professional performer we have out here."

"She's not really depressed," Thomas Vonn explained later. "Racing just doesn't always go the way you expect it to go."

So she is expecting a bounty and is guaranteed nothing. Just six American skiers have ever won two medals in a single Olympics. None has won more than that. Yet now, with the Vancouver Games set to open Friday, here comes Vonn, a clear favorite for gold in the downhill and the super-G, a strong contender in the combined, a threat for a medal in both the slalom and the giant slalom -- though, hampered by an injured hand, she has struggled in the latter two disciplines during the World Cup season.

Three hundredths of a second could determine whether Vonn matches the breathless hopes that have been thrust upon her entering these Games or instead heads back to her home in Vail, Colo., or her home town of Burnsville, Minn., another victim of build-up that proved unmatchable.

In 2008, Michael Phelps went into the Beijing Olympics with a quest for eight gold medals. He delivered. Now, historic expectations are moved from one Games to the next, from one sport to another, whether or not the analogies apply.

Vonn is accepting, if not quite comfortable, with the expectations.

"What I've come to realize is that the only thing I can do is be prepared and -- physically, mentally -- do the best that I can every day," Vonn said. "At the end of the day, if people judge me for not succeeding or succeeding -- what have you -- that's their opinion. I have to be happy with my performance and what I've given."

What she has given is her life -- "my whole life," she said, almost all 25 years of it. And now, it is not just hers. Thomas Vonn was once a ski racer, too. The year of his lone Olympic appearance, 2002, was the year of Lindsey Kildow's first, when she was just 17. That same year, she and Vonn began dating, though he is nine years older and her father disapproved. In 2007, they got married.

Now, entering an Olympics in which she could be the marquee performer, they are rarely apart. Her career is their career, and when NBC's cameras are trained on Vonn before a race, during a race, after a race -- as they will undoubtedly be over the course of the next two-plus weeks -- expect a corresponding shot of Thomas's face, smiling or sullen. If she wins multiple events, they will have done it together. If she fails to earn even a single medal -- as Bode Miller, the featured product of 2006 pre-Olympic hype machine, learned was possible -- they will have done that together, too.

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