It was mid-November, and Lindsey Vonn was reclining at Copper Mountain Ski Resort in Colorado. A knit hat pulled snugly over cascading blond hair, she gazed into a video camera and offered an easy smile. Her teeth were remarkably white, arranged like a perfect set of ivory keys on a grand piano. In her lap was a folded piece of paper containing lines of text – a collection of sentences for an Olympics promo going into Vancouver's Winter Games. Her eyes swept across the page, then halted. In a brief second, her expression grew long and dubious.
She turned the lines of text toward the producer and pointed to one line.
"Can I say something different than 'I've got my sights set on Olympic gold'?" she asked. "I'd rather say something else."
It was a simple, seemingly innocuous request. But it carried a subtle but distinct pushback. The Vancouver Games were months away, but expectations were already beginning to gather over Vonn like thunderheads. This wasn't just a Winter Olympics anymore. In the United States, the PR machine of NBC was manufacturing something bigger. As far as the network was concerned, this tall, wholesome, profitable woman was as close as the U.S. had to a can't-miss "it" athlete. She was dominating the international stage in Alpine skiing, had a personal story with some gravity, and seemed poised to win multiple medals – multiple gold medals. She was the star, and her stage would be Vonncouver.
And somewhere in all of this, Vonn began to hear the name that any Olympian would dread at this juncture: Michael Phelps. Otherwise known as the rock whom future Olympians will be smashed against. Vonn couldn't remember when she first heard herself referred to as "the Phelps of the Winter Games," but it is a tag as halting as it is flattering. A tag that has been floating around since the Beijing Olympics, waiting to descend onto some unlucky soul since the summer of 2008, when Phelps lit the fuse of Olympic expectation and sent it rumbling into the stratosphere.
A winner of an unprecedented eight gold medals only 17 months ago, Phelps was the extraordinary athlete who exceeded absurd expectations. He dazzled everyone: his country, an Olympic machine that feasts on greatness, NBC coverage that leveraged his star power, and an American media culture that exists to lionize winners.
Naturally, one had to wonder: Who would fill the Phelps void in 2010? Could there be another U.S. athlete who offered such a constellation of greatness, marketability and appeal?
Now here was Vonn in mid-November, staring into a camera and engaging in delicate combat. In the coming days, she'll ski all five Alpine disciplines: slalom, giant slalom, super giant slalom (also known as the super-G), and the super combined (one downhill and one slalom run). But never will you hear her utter the phrase "shooting for gold" about any of them.
"That's the one thing I'm not saying," Vonn said. "I'm not going out there making any statements about how many medals I'm going to win. That's not what I'm about."
So she beats back the hype while finding a way to embrace it. If she doesn't produce gold, she doesn't want to go from favorite to failure just because the pundits needed their "face of the Games."
In a league of her own
In the pantheon of the Olympics, the United States has never produced someone like Vonn. At least, that's the storyline being built heading into Vancouver. And it is correct, in the sense that Vonn is the first U.S. woman to win back-to-back World Cup overall titles in 2008 and 2009. But there is room for argument when it comes to the "best ever" conversation.
Vonn wasn't the first American woman to win a World Cup overall title – Tamara McKinney did it first in 1983, when the feat seemed almost impossible. And going into Vancouver, Vonn can't even stake a claim to being the top female Olympian in her sport. Most would argue that title falls to Picabo Street, who captured silver in downhill in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994, and gold in super-G at Nagano, Japan, in 1998.
But Vonn's back-to-back accomplishments have been no less staggering in an American skiing community that has been largely ignored outside of the Olympics. While the U.S. celebrates "world champions" in sports that aren't truly international – like the NFL and NBA – Vonn has stacked up as the real thing with her World Cup titles.
And she's on the verge of something greater. If she wins another overall World Cup title in 2010 (she currently leads the standings), she'll join Austria's legendary duo of Annemarie Pröll and Petra Kronberger as the only women to win at least three straight overall titles. To put that in perspective that Americans can understand, it's something like Tiger Woods' charge up the career majors list, and ranking with such icons as Jack Nicklaus and Walter Hagen.
Only Vonn is doing it on someone else's turf.
"All the other countries, especially Austria, ski racing is like their NFL, their NBA, their baseball," said Vonn's husband since 2007, Thomas, a former Alpine Olympian for the U.S. "It's the most important thing to them. To have somebody else, especially from the U.S., come and kind of clean up all the World Cups, it's frustrating for them. Especially when they can't come up with an answer."
It's part of the reason the Phelps comparisons have flowed so freely, too. Vonn, born Lindsey Kildow, is a skiing natural. She was on skis at age 2, began receiving international attention at 14, and made her first Olympic team in 2002 at the age of 17. But only over the last three years, during which she dedicated herself to remolding her body through dryland training, did she make her sustained international charge. Now she has 31 career victories on the World Cup stage – only one short of Bode Miller's American record – and could crack the top five in all-time victories on the women's circuit this year.
As with Phelps in his prime, her dominance has spanned the globe and has placed her among her sport’s endorsement elite. There have been some wrinkles. The money in Alpine – as in swimming and many other Olympic sports – is an inverted pyramid, with vast amounts of cash and resources going to a precious few. So if it's not a ski-centric country like Austria feeling an ego bruise, it’s financially struggling individual skiers developing their own jealousies.
Those beefs are rarely a public affair, but those around Vonn say they have seen some. One of the few publicized examples appeared in an Austrian newspaper last month, when coaches from the national team made disparaging remarks about the weight of Vonn and Germany's Maria Riesch, who are regarded by many as the world’s two best female downhill skiers. In the article, which negatively anointed Vonn and Riesch "two giants of the sport," Austrian coaches suggested that their weight gave them an unfair edge in speed races. Both Vonn and Riesch are taller than 5-foot-10; Vonn cuts a very athletic 160 pounds while Riesch pushed 180.
"Maria and I are also both really good slalom skiers, which people say favors smaller skiers," Vonn remarked later. "If all it took to be good at ski racing was weight, then we all would be stuffing our faces."
Vonn went out and swept a slate of three races in Austria after reading the remarks, and heads into Vancouver having rolled through the pre-Olympic World Cup slate with nine wins in 26 races.
"It's a mind game, the whole thing," said Alex Hoedlmoser, a onetime world-class Austrian skier who now coaches women's U.S. speed team (downhill and super-G racers). "What the Austrian coaches said, it was totally improper. She's definitely not overweight. Everybody sees that. It's just something they are doing to – not to say [a bad] word – to [expletive] with her head. It's something to pretty much get somebody a little bit disturbed. … She's so well-conditioned, the whole thing is pretty much a joke anyway. And she knew it."
Finding her stride, fighting misconceptions
Now comes the fickle part of fame and success. As much as the World Cup means on an international stage, few awards are more recognizable in the U.S. than an Olympic medal. And on that stage, Vonn has been invisible.
That reality exists for various reasons. She wasn't expected to medal in 2002 in Salt Lake City, when at 17 years old she finished sixth in the super combined. Four years later in Torino, her high hopes of medaling were dashed when she suffered a violent cartwheel crash in a practice run two days before the Games began. But she did make an indelible impression on those Games, leaving her hospital bed with midnight-black bruises on her back and pelvis to compete through the pain. Her courageous efforts earned her a seventh-place finish in the super-G, eighth in downhill, 14th in slalom – and, in the highest honor bestowed on Olympians by their teammates, she earned the U.S. Olympic Spirit Award.
But out of that catastrophe, she was reborn. She married Thomas Vonn the following year, and he became a staple of her skiing life on the hill and off. Thomas has at times called himself Vonn's chief of staff, taking care of almost every facet that would draw her attention from skiing. That micromanagement isn’t intended to push Vonn harder but to allow her to focus.
While Vonn has worked to refine herself physically over the last four years, Thomas has helped her understand how to get better performance out of her equipment and how to attack a run in the most efficient way possible. One of the chief changes that Thomas was involved in was Vonn using men's skis in downhill and super-G. The change suited Vonn's fast, aggressive style while making her lower-body strength a significant advantage over opponents.
"I'm a very from-the-gut, spontaneous person," Vonn said. "Sometimes I do things without reason. And [Thomas] is very logical and planned. He's meticulous. The combination of those two personalities really work well for us. He finds all the details in the course, and I find the speed. Together we create a lot of success."
And that success has gone in divergent directions – paying the bills on one hand with numerous sponsorship deals, but also creating a spotlight of scrutiny that can go from celebration to vilification at the first hint of disappointment. Vonn saw it firsthand with U.S. teammate Bode Miller, who went into Torino in 2006 the same way Vonn enters Vancouver in 2010: a medal hopeful in all five Alpine disciplines, and the "it" athlete for those Games. The result was utter calamity, with Miller partying hard and failing to medal even once. Not long afterward, his relationship with the U.S. ski program fractured, and is arguably still in an awkward state despite his having rejoined the team to compete in Vancouver.
Miller has since been painted as petulant, selfish, and reclusive – the antithesis of how Vonn is now portrayed. Though she bristles at the "anti-Bode" talk, she also gives off a clear message about Miller: His problems were self-induced, and she doesn't plan to fall into a similar trap.
"Honestly, I don't know Bode very well," Vonn said. "He's just not a very open person. If I asked him about [his experiences], I'm sure he'd give me some advice. But I feel like I'm just a totally different person than he is. For me, I've learned a lot from my own experiences and how to deal with things like that. I don't feel like if I don't do well, it's going to be a catastrophe. If I don't ski well, or I don't do well, it's my fault. It's not like I'm going to go out and party or something like that. You don't have to worry about me setting a bad example. I'm always conscious of what I represent."
Vonn likes to tell a story about how she was toasting victory at the FIS World Championships in France a year ago. At one point in the celebration, she cut tendons in her right thumb on a broken champagne bottle. The reaction in the bite-size world of Internet information was predictable: A few fans and pundits argued that Vonn did indeed have a bit of party girl in her. But the facts were far less sexy: The incident was at 6 p.m., at an awards ceremony, and she hadn't consumed a drop of alcohol at the time.
"The way it was portrayed or kind of spun just made me feel sick," Vonn said. "I was so upset about it. That kind of made me realize how even a little thing can really alter public perception. And it doesn't even have to be true."
The future is now
What happens next is the greatest piece of anticipation in these Games. Eventually, the general public will learn that Alpine skiing is nothing like swimming, and that the branding of Vonn as a potential Phelps clone was never realistic in the first place.
The masses will learn that a great deal of luck plays into winning ski races, because unlike Phelps in his safe and consistent swimming pool, Vonn's test takes place on a living, breathing, sometimes defiant hill – among all the machinations nature has to offer.
"There's way, way too much stuff going on [on a mountain]," Thomas Vonn said. "People are talking about five medals and stuff like that, and honestly, it's not realistic. It's not swimming. You're not just jumping in the water. A gust of wind, a cloud covers the sun for your run – I've seen an animal run across a course and screw up a guy's run."
Of course, that won't stop the dreaming. That won't stop the Phelps comparisons. But why would it at this stage?
For those who have been paying attention, it's clear what the realistic goals are for Vonn. She is the gold medal favorite in downhill and super-G. She even has an opportunity to medal in the super combined.
Barring a reversal in fortunes, she'll struggle to stay in the hunt in slalom and GS, because of her technique in left-footed turns, and a left wrist injury that has given her some difficulty using that pole for leverage.
And now there is news of a shin injury suffered last week, which Vonn expects to limit her practice runs at the Games.
Suddenly, you could argue, the collective injuries have shaken the certainty of Vonn's dominance.
And if she does miraculously pull off five golds – which isn't going to happen – Picabo Street summed up that feat best:
"She and Phelps are apples and grapefruits," Street said. "But if you do want say 'What if she wins five gold medals?', well, if she wins five gold medals, then she's knocking on the greatest-athlete-ever door that he just walked through."
In one sense, Vonn doesn't even need that. Unless she fails miserably, she's already won the battle of public consciousness. She has 10 lucrative endorsement deals, including such giants as Rolex, Red Bull, Cover Girl, and Procter & Gamble. She's been on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Olympics preview issue, in a somewhat dolled-up downhill pose that has already caused a stir among some Alpine purists. And she's baring even more flesh in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, which is just now hitting the stands.
"She's obviously hot," said Kenneth Meyer, a former senior executive vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Meyer also has specialized in putting together endorsement deals between corporations and Olympic athletes. "[NBC] is building her up. Someone like her will become prominent because the network has chosen her to be the star. And Sports Illustrated has chosen her to sell magazines.
"I showed that Sports Illustrated cover to my wife and she said, 'Well, of course – look at her.' If she really is going to win gold medals and looks like that and smiles like that, why not?"
But therein lies the rub. Vonn is at the peak of her performance heading into these Games. Opponents are snapping off quotes about consistency as if they're preparing for second place. Now it's time for her to prove that she has been worthy of all the praise and attention. Because while she may not be Phelps, she does have the chance to cement herself as the greatest American woman ever to click into a set of skis.
McKinney carried that torch once. So did Street. Now Vonn stands ready to become the nexus of her celebrated predecessors – the woman with the World Cup titles and some Olympic hardware to match. The kind of woman deserving of the controversial title bestowed on her by Sports Illustrated going into these games: America's Best Female Skier Ever.
Street read that, and she had no doubt.
"Just wait," Street said. "Give it a couple, three weeks. By then, nobody is going to be able to question it."