By Alan Baldwin
Jan 7 (Reuters) - Lindsey Vonn's withdrawal from next month's Winter Olympics has deprived the Sochi Games of arguably the most famous face in the blue riband event of Alpine skiing.
The sport's celebrities do not come much bigger than Vonn, the Olympic downhill champion and shining star of commercials across the United States who just happens to be dating world number one golfer Tiger Woods.
Her decision to pull out due to a knee injury has left a gaping hole in the Olympic schedule and the four-times overall World Cup winner said she was "devastated" to miss out on the chance of winning a medal in her fourth Winter Games.
One of the most marketable and photogenic of winter athletes, with her clean-cut blonde looks smiling out of multiple glossy magazines, Vonn was desperate to compete in Sochi but recently denied being under pressure from sponsors to take her place in the starting hut.
Vonn, 29, is the only active skier with more than 50 World Cup wins - she is three off Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell's record 62 - but has endured a nightmare year on the slopes.
After sealing her sixth successive World Cup downhill title, a record for either sex, the Minnesota-born skier crashed at the world championships last February and tore both her ACL in her right knee and medial collateral ligament (MCL).
She then aggravated the injury in training at Copper Mountain, Colorado, in November.
An initial return to World Cup competition in Lake Louise in December looked promising, with a fifth place in a Super-G, but the knee let her down in Val d'Isere just before Christmas.
"On downhill training runs in Val d'Isere and Lake Louise it held up fine but then on race day in Val d'Isere it didn't," she told Reuters.
"I think it's really a roll of the dice whether I can do it or not but to be honest I'm mentally tough enough to overcome it."
Sochi was likely to be her last appearance on the Olympic slopes and there is no question about her mental toughness.
In a sport where there is a fine line between glory and disaster, Vonn has had plenty of crashes, been inside lots of hospitals and frequently raced through the pain barrier.
Vonn crashed in training for the 2006 Turin Olympic downhill and was flown to hospital by helicopter but, still in excruciating pain despite miraculously having no broken bones, returned two days later to finish eighth.
At the 2007 world championships she injured her right knee in a slalom training fall that ended her season. Such accidents, she says, are just part of the job description.
In 2008, she became only the second female U.S. skier to win the overall World Cup, and retained the title over the next two seasons.
Injury was again a major concern at the Vancouver Olympics when her involvement was in doubt due to the pain of a bruised shin. In the end, she became the first U.S. woman to win downhill gold and also took a Super-G bronze.
The success has had a darker side to it as well. Vonn has been through depression and divorce, parental and personal, and years of estrangement from her father Alan which has now ended.
Vonn, who competed in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics under her maiden name of Kildow before marrying fellow Olympian Thomas Vonn in 2007, had her divorce finalised last year. Her parents separated before the 2002 Games.
Mother Lindy had a stroke when Vonn was born and still has problems with balance which means she cannot ski herself. Instead, she gives constant support.
"Any injury is difficult but something that my mom has always instilled in me is to stay positive and to pick myself back up," Vonn said in the interview organised by sponsor P&G for their 'Thank You, Mom,' campaign.
"I've always been someone that has fallen many times but I've always picked myself back up and this is just one of those instances I'm having. The injury is bad but I am still determined, still optimistic and I'm doing my best every day."
Sadly for Vonn, her optimism proved unfounded.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)