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OLYMPICS / SKIING

Lindsey Vonn has a peak left to conquer.

The Vancouver Olympics affords the dominating U.S. skier a new level of stardom.

October 23, 2009|Chris Dufresne

The most accomplished female U.S. Alpine skier of her generation, or maybe any other, and the personality NBC is packaging to become the Michael Phelps of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics emerged from a car outside a trendy cafe in Hollywood.

A statuesque brunet behind sunglasses, Lindsey Vonn stepped onto the street where Schwab's drugstore once stood: the Sunset Boulevard of dreams.

Yet not once during the hour she raved about the almond French toast and sipped orange juice was she approached for an autograph. No one took her picture.

"I'm just an average person," Vonn said. "I like it this way."

If things go according to script, that's about to change.

The first run toward Vancouver begins Saturday, when Vonn opens her World Cup season with a giant-slalom race in Soelden, Austria.

She turned 25 last Sunday, a world of accomplishments behind her and the great unknown waiting beyond a Soelden start gate.

"I feel like in most ways I'm ready," Vonn said over breakfast during an off-season visit to Los Angeles. "But then again, in some ways, you're never ready. I try not to think about what can happen, if I do well and what it would be like."

By any measurement other than America's, Vonn has nothing left to prove. She is the two-time defending World Cup overall champion, a 22-time winner on the circuit and a two-time world champion.

Picabo Street, the most famous name in U.S. skiing history, never won a World Cup overall title and claimed only nine event victories.

Street, though, achieved transcendent fame on an international stage in Japan by winning gold in the super-giant slalom at the 1998 Nagano Games.

It took Street years of toil to reach her mountaintop and less than two minutes to cash in.

"In ski racing, honestly, the overall title is much more coveted than Olympic medals," Vonn said.

And her point was?

"Obviously, my life goal is to win a gold medal," Vonn said.

America, if it remembers at all, recalls Vonn at the 2006 Turin Games being airlifted from a mountain in the Italian Alps after a horrific training crash on the Olympic downhill course.

Vonn, bruised but not literally broken, earned profound respect when she raced the downhill anyway, finishing eighth.

In terms of medals cache, though, it was an Olympic opportunity lost.

Medals weren't on Vonn's mind as she was tumbling so violently and helplessly down that slope her teammates in the finish area had to turn their heads when a replay was shown on the jumbo screen.

"I just think people are born to do certain things," Vonn explained. "They have a certain skill. They're very specific to one sport or one talent. It's rare.

"I was hard-wired to ski race. Lance [Armstrong] is hard-wired to ride a bike. It's who we are. When I crashed in Torino that was one of the things that really scared me: I am a ski racer. If I couldn't ski race, what would I do, who would I be?"

Vonn recovered from Italy to dominate her sport, with a chance in Vancouver to cash her big check.

Her ramp-up to the Olympic season has been frenetic. She has been in New York for television appearances, spent summer time in Mexico and Austria and a month in New Zealand testing skis. She traveled to Chile in September for downhill training before returning to the U.S. for a six-city publicity tour.

She has done photo shoots and shot commercials and spent considerable time at NBC in Los Angeles as the network readies her to become to Vancouver what Phelps was to Beijing.

Actually, with only five available medal chances, NBC would settle for Vonn's becoming the anti-Bode Miller, the five-event, party-boy American who went winless in Italy as he alienated people in several languages.

Vonn isn't going to be that kind of problem. "I'll be in bed at 9 o'clock," she joked.

Vonn, like Miller, will be taking on the ambitious five-event challenge. She figures to be the prohibitive favorite in downhill, and capable of winning gold in super-G, slalom and combined.

She has been working hard to improve her weakest event, giant slalom, the only World Cup event in which she has never placed in the top three.

The opening GS in Soelden will be a good test to measure her progress. Four years after her going head over boots in Torino, Vonn has set sights on Vancouver.

"It seems like time has passed so quickly," she said in a phone interview before flying to Austria in preparation for the most important winter of her career. "I'm really happy it's Olympic time again. I feel there's so much left to do since Torino. I feel like I'm ready now."

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

twitter.com/DufresneLATimes

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