4:03 PM CST, March 9, 2012
Lindsey Vonn knew she began this World Cup alpine ski season physically stronger than she ever had been. She also was sure the hundreds of hours spent riding a bicycle last summer had made her endurance better than ever.
Vonn underscored her assessment by making personal history in the late October race at Soelden, Austria that serves as something of a forerunner to the season, winning a giant slalom for the first time in her career.
Almost exactly a month later, when the white circus decamped in Aspen, Colorado, the secure feeling Vonn gained from her preparation seemed threatened by emotional uncertainty when she and her husband, Thomas, confirmed they were divorcing after four years of marriage.
No one would have looked at her unremarkable results in the two Aspen races, a slalom and giant slalom, as an indication of what effect the divorce might have. Speed is Vonn's calling card, which meant the following weekend's events in Lake Louise, Canada, would be a better measure of where her head was while rocketing down mountains at 70 miles per hour.
She won two downhills and a Super-G in Lake Louise. Six days later, she won a Super-G in Beaver Creek, Colo.
"That was really important," Vonn said on a Friday conference call. "I went out there and showed everyone I can ski under tough situations. That confidence has carried me all the way through to now."
She has gone on from Lake Louise with the most assured skiing of a career that has made Vonn, at 27, easily the greatest skier of either gender in U.S. history and one of the top two or three women skiers in the sport's history.
She is finishing it with the kind of success that has made Vonn one of the greatest athletes in the world of sport.
Friday in Are, Sweden, Vonn not only clinched the fourth overall World Cup title of her career, she did it by winning the second giant slalom of her career.
Vonn's four overall titles are most by a U.S. skier. Phil Mahre won three. Austria's Annemarie Moser-Proell has the record six; Vonn now is alone in second among women.
The overall title includes results from the sport's five disciplines. Vonn has won races in four of them this season.
"It has been an incredible season," Vonn said. "I have had a lot of personal struggles off the slopes but somehow managed to find the found mental strength to overcome them."
The split with Thomas Vonn risked weighing on her in several areas. Beginning in 2005, he had assumed multiple roles in her life: coach, logistics coordinator, booster, sports psychologist, factotum.
Instead, both Vonn's results and her words leave one to think she feels liberated. At least three times during the conference call, she mentioned how enjoyable the season has been.
"I'm having more fun with my life," she said.
Vonn has won 11 races, matching her U.S. record from two years ago. She has 52 career World Cup victories, leaving her three shy of Switzerland's Vreni Schneider, second on the all-time list to Moser-Proell's 62.
"The problems in my personal life have made me more focused," she said. "It is just wanting to prove to myself I can ski by myself."
Vonn hasn't exactly been alone (I'm not referring to rumors - which she has denied - linking her romantically to Tim Tebow.) She has engaged more with teammates. She has relied more on advice from U.S. Ski Team staff coaches. Vonn's two sisters have been with her off-and-on through the winter. And she has begun to reestablish a relationship with her father, Alan Kildow, from whom she had become estranged primarily because he did not approve of her relationship with Thomas Vonn.
"Skiing is the only thing that is simple right now in my life," she said. "Skiing has been the constant."
She has skied to Olympic gold, World Championship gold, World Cup overall crystal globes, five straight World Cup season titles in downhill, three straight in combined. She should win a fourth straight Super-G title next week.
Her unprecedented success in giant slalom has been the big change in Vonn's skiing this season. She attributes the difference to using men's longer, stiffer skis in giant slalom, a switch she previously had made in the speed events.
"It forces me to take a straighter line because I can't pull the short radius (turn) with the long skis," she said. "It's more risky, but at the same time the length of the ski gives me more stability."
Vonn has improved her U.S. record for points in a season to 1,808, giving her a good shot with five races left at the World Cup record of 2,000 by Austria's Herman Maier. (Points run from 100 for a win to 1 for 30th place.) Croatia's Janica Kostelic has the women's record total, 1,970.
"I'm trying to beat the 2,000 barrier," she said. "That opportunity may never come again in my career."
Vonn's numbers already speak for themselves. And while you can use them to measure her against her sport's past standards, the time has come to start looking at her from a different perspective.
Comparing greatness from one sport to another can be a futile apples-and-oranges exercise. There are, after all, relatively few elite skiers, especially when counted against basketball or soccer players and the like.
But no athlete in any sport has been more consistently brilliant over the past several years than Vonn.
And hers is a sport in which everything conspires against consistency.
She wins on mushy snow and rock-hard ice, in weather conditions that can immeasurably help one skier and wreck the chances of the next, from November through March in a far-from-the-mainstream sport that demands she live mainly out of a suitcase and far from home, in events that require fearlessness and technical mastery.
Lindsey Vonn simply is as good as it gets.
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