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Same plan, different package: Meet the anti-Bode Miller

March 15, 2009|Jim Litke | Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for the Associated Press.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: A U.S. skier blows away the competition and wins a World Cup overall title with the Winter Olympics looming in the distance. Predicting gold in all five races is far from a stretch. Suddenly, a story about celebrating and champagne bubbles to the top of the story.

"I feel," Lindsey Vonn said Thursday, "like I'm pretty much the exact opposite of Bode Miller."

The soft laughter in the background is unmistakable, even though she's chuckling into a phone halfway around the world. Everybody else who knows what Vonn is about -- hard work and nothing but -- might not find the comparison so amusing.

Hours earlier, at the World Cup finals in Are, Sweden, she won the super-G season finale to become the first American woman to win a title in the discipline. A day earlier, she clinched the World Cup overall crown for the second straight year.

Then again, Miller, was the hands-down best on the planet, and he, too, brought a sparkling resume to the Turin Games in 2006. Everybody knows how that turned out -- zero medals, too much night life.

"No disrespect," Vonn continued. "I guess what I mean is that I'm really regimented, really disciplined and focused only on skiing. I'm not here to go out at night. I'm here to race.

"You never know how you'll handle something until you get there. But the nice part about my situation is I have my husband (former U.S. skier Thomas Vonn) to keep me in line. It's a huge difference, believe me. My mind never wanders too far, and if it does, well, Tom is always around."

There's no arguing with results. Those who say the 24-year-old Vonn is the best female skier America has ever produced, childhood hero Picabo Street included, also suggest she can contend for the title of best ever.

Just so you know there's distractions and DISTRACTIONS, let's get the story about the champagne bottle out of the way in a hurry. Vonn had just won the downhill, her favorite event, at the world championships in Val d'Isere a few weeks ago and ...

"I hadn't even had a sip. Honestly," Vonn said. "The sad part is everyone hears about it and thinks I was out partying. It was just the opposite.

"I went from the medal ceremony to what was supposed to be a photo-op -- me spraying the crowd with champagne -- and the cork wouldn't come out. So one of the guys takes his ski, chops off the top of the bottle and I grab it without looking.

"Next thing I know, there goes the flexor tendon ... cut just about clean through. So I go from celebrating a title one minute," she added, "to thinking about not skiing for the rest of the season."

Instead, doctors stitched together the tendon in her thumb, made up a brace and told Vonn to think about skipping the slalom race. She told them, politely, to worry about their job and let her worry about the rest. Vonn needed a half-roll of tape wound around her right hand just to grip the ski pole. She raced, anyway.

People who knew her didn't expect anything less. She returned to ski the downhill at the Turin Olympics barely 48 hours after a spectacular crash in practice, but the backstory is even better.

As Vonn was lying in the hospital, totaling up the damage, Street turned up at her bedside. The two first met a dozen years earlier in a little ski shop in Minnesota, after which Vonn put Street's poster up on her bedroom wall. They laughed, they cried, then began plotting a return to the slopes. Vonn was so stoked that while the hospital staff worked on her discharge papers, she grabbed her clothes, gathered her bags and made a break for it.

She got caught, but eventually got out and raced anyway, finishing eighth in a race she had a solid chance to win. Instead of viewing it as a disappointment, she simply marked it down as something important to know about herself: Competing with pain -- check.

"As a coach," said U.S. women's ski team chief Jim Tracy, "you can only hope and dream to have an athlete like this to work with.

"She's got that combination of physical and mental strength plenty of others at this level have. Maybe what sets Lindsey apart is the way she comes into a high-pressure race. She takes that same energy, the expectations and such, that prove detrimental to so many others and uses it to sharpen her focus. She gets smarter. She figures out where to put down the hammer and take risks and when to back off and carry her speed."

Vonn may be more analytical than she lets on. What attracted her to skiing was the adrenaline that coursed from head to toe the faster she went. She started racing at age 7, began a lifelong rivalry with U.S. teammate Julia Mancuso at 11 and won an international title at 14 that convinced her she had future in the sport. None of that has changed the elemental rush she still feels beating everyone down the hill.

"The hardest thing was learning to stay in the moment," she said. "As a kid, the second the thrill ends, you're always looking into the future. I guess I just figured out how to focus on one thing at a time. ... Between my husband and all the other people supporting me, I'm better at doing that than ever."

Vonn's next test was to come Thursday evening, when the U.S. ski team planned a little party.

"One glass of champagne for the toast, we've all earned it," Vonn said. "Maybe 20 minutes, tops, then I'm going back to my room and bed. There's two races (Friday) and another on Saturday.

"Some of the others," she concluded, "will have to do the partying for me."

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