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Weight of expectations rides on Lindsey Vonn's shoulders

The prohibitive downhill favorite gets four days of additional rest and treatment for her shin, but the injury adds an unforeseen layer of mystery as moment of reckoning is at hand.

February 17, 2010|By Chris Dufresne

Reporting from Whistler, Canada — It has been almost a week now of full focus on the least controversial body part displayed in skier Lindsey Vonn's recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot:

Her right shin.

She bruised it Feb. 2 in Austria, couldn't walk for two days, limped into Vancouver last week and threw around such words as "excruciatingly painful." She questioned whether she could race and was even asked whether she might be using the injury as an excuse in case she didn't win.

"Wow," Vonn responded.

Fast forward to "Now."

Wednesday, weather and shin permitting, Vonn will finally make her Alpine debut at Whistler Creekside in the downhill, an event she has owned on the World Cup circuit.

Vonn, only 25, may be the most prohibitive favorite in the history of Olympic downhill, which is saying a lot for a woman from a country that has never won gold in the event.

In fact, of the 48 medals awarded in the women's downhill since 1948, the United States has claimed only five medals: three silver and two bronze.

Picabo Street, remember, won her Olympic gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Games in the super giant slalom -- although she raced that day on her downhill skis.

The pressure to win when you are favored is enormous.

"The predictions that I'm going to win make me nervous," a top U.S. skier once said of gold-medal expectations in the downhill. "America is putting its hopes on me and it's a terrible feeling."

Those were words, recounted in David Wallechinsky's book on the Winter Olympics, were spoken by American Penelope Pitou, the gold-medal favorite at the 1960 Squaw Valley Games.

Pitou wobbled near the end of her run and finished second.

What fate awaits Lindsey Vonn?

There are no guarantees in sport, although Vonn winning the downhill may be as close you can get.

She is the defending world champion in the event and has won five of the six races contested on this year's World Cup circuit.

Yet, her shin injury adds an unforeseen layer of mystery.

Vonn seemingly caught one of the biggest breaks in Olympic history when poor weather postponed Sunday's opening event, the combined, and precluded the women from even completing a training run until Monday.

The delays bought Vonn four days of additional rest and treatment. She did some free skiing and even tested the shin with some slalom training Sunday, a session her husband, Thomas, declared a minor "set-back."

Vonn was finally forced to the hill Monday for an official downhill training run.

She finished first, ahead of teammate Julia Mancuso, but did not like the ultimate result.

Vonn said afterward her shin was throbbing in her boot.

"I was just trying to fight my way down," she said. "The bumpiest course I've ever run in my career . . . definitely not good for my leg."

Vonn publicly cheered for bad weather to cancel Tuesday's training run.

She got her wish, yet her moment of start-gate truth is fast approaching. The recent snowfall and additional course preparation time should soften the track Vonn thought was as rickety as an old roller coaster.

The competition is not expecting Vonn to be bothered by the shin.

"I don't think that it is too bad," Maria Riesch of Germany, Vonn's best friend on tour, said. "I know this kind of injury is really painful, but I think for skiing she is OK."

Canada's Britt Janyk was trying to get her own mind and body in order.

"I'm not thinking about her shin," Janyk said.

The sleeper in the downhill field might be Mancuso, Vonn's teammate and longtime rival -- and the only member of the U.S. women's team with an Olympic gold medal. Mancuso won the giant slalom four years ago at Turin, but she is also the ninth-rated downhiller on the World Cup circuit this year.

Mancuso finished seventh in the 2006 Olympic downhill, one spot ahead of Vonn, who had returned to race only two days after a crash in training.

As Vonn was complaining about her rough-ride training run Monday, Mancuso was trying to work it to her advantage.

"I like it bumpy," Mancuso said of the course. "It's more technical. It was really bumpy, but I was having fun. I really liked it."

A week ago, Vonn winning at Whistler seemed a done downhill deal.

Suddenly, there's enough doubt to make you pause.

"I've given up a lot in my life and my career to be here," Vonn said. "I hope it all pays off."


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