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WHISTLER, British Columbia – Lindsey Vonn retreated from the hill looking for an answer. She wanted a description, a video replay, a solid witness – something. And when she found her husband, Thomas, she blurted the one question that could have wrapped Thursday's events with a neat little bow.
Two events into the women's Olympic Alpine program, the American's Vonntourage might be wondering the same thing. The answer? Vonn simply fell on Thursday. She clipped her ski on a gate in the slalom portion of the women's super combined, suffering a disqualification in the second of her five-race slate.
On the surface, it was simple skiing. Veterans see this on the World Cup circuit all the time. But there is something larger in play here. There is something mythical and lucrative suddenly up for grabs: the title of "It Girl" in these Winter Games. Twenty-four hours ago, Vonn had it locked up, winning gold in the women's downhill and seemingly taking her first step to multiple medals and ultimate exaltation. But when teammate and rival Julia Mancuso captured her second silver on Thursday – her second medal in two events in two days, no less – the Alpine team's other five-discipline skier essentially made her declaration: She's got plenty of star power, too.
Suddenly, Vonncouver is feeling a little like Vancuso.
And it couldn't be a more riveting tug of wills, with Vonn and Mancuso having been close friends early in their ski careers, but now managing a much cooler, prickly rivalry. And like all rivalries, it features two opposing characters, with clashing ideologies grasping for their portion of the spotlight. Vonn is the sweet, pretty, wholesome one. The one with massive expectations, who sat out the Opening Ceremony while nursing an injured shin and baking banana bread in her condo. Mancuso is the feistier, wilder surfer chick who hawks an underwear line called "Kiss My Tiara." The one who arrived in Vancouver with almost no expectations, and was slightly late for Opening Ceremony because she was playing a last-minute game of "Dance Dance Revolution" in the athletes' Olympic Village.
In general, they are viewed differently inside the U.S. skiing family. Mancuso is seen as a freer, defiant spirit, cut from a cloth that is something similar to the enigmatic Bode Miller. Vonn is thought to be the harder working one, the master of her craft, and the good soldier in the U.S. program.
Interestingly, the two teammates barely spoke a word to each other when they were on stage receiving their downhill medals Wednesday night – Vonn collecting gold and Mancuso silver. And both have taken swipes at each other in the past for the way they prepare for skiing greatness. Vonn has shown some disdain for Mancuso using a private bus rather than traveling with the U.S. team in Europe, and for dryland training away from the program. On the other side, Mancuso has talked about Vonn's approach to skiing being too analytical and boring.
Even now in Vancouver, the discerning ear can decode some of the jabs. Like when Mancuso related her past struggles by talking about an equipment change that allowed stronger skiers – like Vonn – to use men's skis in the downhill discipline.
"I can't use men's skis," Mancuso said. "I can't use really beefy equipment. It's more about feeling. When they changed the equipment rules [to allow the use of men's skis], everything was tougher, and that really took a toll on my body."
Conversely, when Vonn was asked why she believed Mancuso was skiing so well in these Games, she essentially suggested that it was because Mancuso – unlike Vonn – had no pressure placed on her.
"No one is really expecting her to do anything and I think that helps when you don't have any pressure," Vonn said. "That helps to ski aggressively. It definitely is a lot different when you have everyone looking at you and expecting you to do things."
Now here they are, both skiing near the top of their games, competing as much with each other as anyone else in the world. And almost certainly approaching a defining moment in their quest to be the dominant skier in the U.S. women's program. Vonn has her gold, and her slew of World Cup titles. Mancuso has her gold in giant slalom from the 2006 Games in Torino and a pair of silvers in Vancouver, tying her with Miller as the most decorated Alpine Olympian in U.S. history.
Now both have their chance to stake their claim in the next three races. And it should be an epic finish: Vonn has a realistic shot at gold in the super-G, but isn't expected to medal in either the slalom or giant slalom. Conversely, Mancuso has a chance to medal in the super-G, as well as the giant slalom, which was her gold-medal event in Torino in 2006. One way or another, how they finish their slate is going to raise the debate about who put up the most dominant performance in Vancouver.
NBC and the rest of the media world put its wagers down months ago that that athlete would be Vonn. Now Mancuso has descended on these games as if carried by a pair of winged skis. And you can bet, neither wants to lose out to the other. Maybe that's why Vonn went all out Thursday, risking and eventually crashing while reaching for gold, rather than throttling it back for silver or bronze.
And maybe it's why when Mancuso was asked about Vancouver supposedly being the previously medaless Vonn's games, Mancuso said she was OK with that, because Mancuso "wasn’t about trying to get media attention that [she] didn't deserve yet."
Quietly, a battle to be the face of these Games is raging.