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It's all downhill for Lindsey Vonn

The 24-year-old American adds to a fast-growing list of accomplishments by winning world championship gold in skiing's signature event. 'I wanted it more than anything else,' she says.

February 10, 2009|Philip Hersh

One by one, year by year, Lindsey Vonn is ticking off items on a career redefining the standard of greatness for all future U.S. Alpine skiers.

Olympic team? She did that at age 17. World Cup podium for the first of 40 times? Did that at 19. First of 18 World Cup victories? At 20. World championship medal? At 22. World Cup overall title? At 23. World championship gold? At 24.

The final big prize on that list won't be available until next year in Vancouver, Canada, when Vonn hopes to check off two items at the same time -- Olympic medal and Olympic gold.

And why not? Vonn has hit the double at the world championships in Val d'Isere, France, over the last week, winning not only her first world title, in super-giant slalom, but a second one, the downhill she took with a near-perfect run Monday afternoon.

Vonn became the first U.S. woman to win two titles in a stand-alone world meet. Andrea Mead Lawrence did it at the 1952 Olympics, when the Winter Games also counted as the world championships.

Her margin of victory over Switzerland's Lara Gut, 0.52 of a second, was the largest in seven world meets since Vonn's idol, Picabo Street, won by 0.57 of a second in 1996. Vonn's run was so consistently good, her choice of line so tactically sound, that her intermediate times for the final four of the five intervals ranked first, second, second and second.

Being fastest from top to bottom of the mountain represents the sport in its simplest form, like the 100-meter dash in track.

"The speed, the adrenaline, the rush of it all, it's an amazing discipline," Vonn said via conference call. "I always wanted to win at a big event in downhill. This is a big breakthrough for me."

Vonn made sure she celebrated it with champagne, even if that turned out to be more dangerous than getting down an icy race course at breakneck speed.

She needed four stitches on a right thumb she sliced by opening the bubbly Monday night.

"I really think I'm safer skiing 85 mph," Vonn said. "I'm in a little bit of pain, but this shouldn't slow me down."

Her next race would be Thursday's giant slalom. The pain in her hand is likely to be more of a factor Saturday in the slalom, in which skiers often whack gates with their hands.

Vonn's win Monday gave her a title she wanted so badly that it made the job much tougher, especially after the race was delayed a day by heavy snow.

"I knew I could have it if I had a good run," she said, unafraid to acknowledge her obvious talent. "It was only me that was going to stop me. There was so much emotion there, it was really tough to control it."

She knew only one person could help: her husband, Thomas, a former World Cup skier. For the first time, she asked him to be in the start house with her before a race.

"He didn't really know what to do, but he knew what I needed to hear to make me less nervous," she said.

She told him to talk, just keep talking, and he did, first calming her with banter and jokes, waiting until the right moment to fire her up.

"Come on, you want it, you want it, I know you want it," he said.

"And I did," Vonn agreed. "I wanted it more than anything else."

Figure on her husband being at the start next year in Vancouver, when Vonn goes after the last thing left wanting on her checklist.

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phersh@tribune.com

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