American Lindsey Vonn celebrates her gold medal run in the finish area at Whistler Creekside on Wednesday morning. Vonn took the gold, and her teammate Julia Mancuso won silver in the women's downhill event.

Photo by John F. Russell

American Lindsey Vonn celebrates her gold medal run in the finish area at Whistler Creekside on Wednesday morning. Vonn took the gold, and her teammate Julia Mancuso won silver in the women's downhill event.

Vonn grabs Olympic gold

Shin injury doesn’t stop Vail skier’s quest

— When Lindsey Vonn met two-time American Olympic medalist Picabo Street in a Minnesota ski shop some 15 years ago, an Olympic dream and the foundation for one of the greatest Alpine ski careers was born.

As Vonn has treaded her way through the 2010 Winter Olympics — one where expectations were heaped upon her shoulders (and shins), fairly or unfairly — she’s always remained upbeat. Vonn skied an attacking, aggressive run Wednesday in Whistler, British Columbia, and the final piece of her magnificent career fell into place.

Vonn edged fellow American Julia Mancuso, winning her first Olympic medal in a time of 1 minute, 44.19 seconds, becoming the first American to win the women’s downhill in the 21st Winter Olympics.

Mancuso took the silver, finishing 0.56 seconds behind, and Elisabeth Goergl, of Austria, took the bronze, 1.46 seconds behind.

“It doesn’t matter now. I’ve won my medal,” an emotional Vonn said. “I’ve worked my whole life for this. Even though it hasn’t been a perfect ride, it’s been an amazing one. I’m even more thankful to win (Wednesday) considering all the troubles that I’ve had. The injuries and all the setbacks makes it very sweet to have this victory.”

Vonn, who has been on a racecourse just twice in the past two weeks because of injuries — most notably a shin injury that has made it excruciatingly painful to be in ski boots — put together the run of a lifetime Wednesday.

Mancuso went eighth and had set the bar with a run of technical brilliance. On a course where rolling bumps and tough light challenged skiers, Mancuso was nine-tenths ahead of every other skier when she reached the bottom.

“For me, it’s just living our dreams,” Mancuso said. “It’s something we’ve both dreamed about forever. It’s been a long journey. It just goes to show how you can do anything you put your mind to if you believe in yourself.”

Vonn was at the top and had heard from her husband, Thomas, that Mancuso had put down the nearly flawless run.

Thomas relayed to Vonn that she would have to be aggressive, attack and be darn near perfect.

“I didn’t need him to tell me that,” Vonn said. “I knew the stakes. I knew Julia had a good run. I just said, ‘OK, I got it.’ I went out and skied the way I know how to ski.”

That way was one in which Vonn wasn’t technically brilliant but more than made up for it in aggressiveness.

By the time she hit the bottom air and soared toward the finish line, it was close. Vonn looked up at the giant scoreboard, saw her time and a No. 1 next to her name and fell to her knees.

Wednesday’s event marked the first time Americans have finished first and second in Alpine skiing since the 1984 games. The last time it happened, Americans Phillip and Steven Mahre went 1-2 in the men’s slalom, and Deb Armstrong, now Alpine skiing director at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, won the gold in the women’s giant slalom and Christin Cooper won the silver.

But for Vonn, whose right shin bruise has been the talk of the Olympics, Wednesday was the apex of a decorated career.

They said she couldn’t win World Cups, and she did. They said she couldn’t win a World Championship, and she did.

Now there isn’t much they can say, except that maybe Vonn is the greatest female Alpine racer in America’s history. 

“It’s been a long journey since that ski shop in Minnesota,” Vonn said. “I have a lot of weight off my shoulders. I can ski confidently. To do it, even with the shin injury. I’ve already won a gold medal. I don’t have to think about that. I can just think about skiing.

I’m completely overwhelmed. It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.”

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