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American Lindsey Vonn racks up World Cup wins, sponsors but not Olympic success

LOS ANGELES — Lindsey Vonn was going downhill so fast — in a wholesome, epic, lucrative way — there wasn't time to wait for her to actually win an Olympic medal.

She is the drink of these Vancouver Olympics (Red Bull), the watch (Rolex) and the catchphrase (get a Vonntourage T-shirt at lindseyvonnshop.com).

"Lindsey is authentic," says David Neal, NBC's executive producer for the Olympics. "She's the best woman skier in the world. Lindsey has the whole package — athletic ability, personality. She's the sort of person that is made for television."

Vonn is 25, already the greatest female U.S. skier in history. The "yodelers" and cowbell ringers overseas already know what prime time in Peoria is about to discover. Vonn has 31 World Cup victories — nine this season — two shy of breaking Bode Miller's American record of 32. She ranks eighth on the all-time World Cup victory list, halfway to Austrian Annemarie Proell's record of 62.

Let's cut, though, to Vonn looking forlornly at her empty Olympic trophy case.

At 17, she finished sixth in combined at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Four years later, a head-over-boots training crash probably cost her a medal. Vonn, battered and bruised, returned from her hospital bed to finish eighth in downhill, seventh in super-giant slalom and 14th in slalom.

Since Italy, she has won two overall World Cup titles. Her bib number is a bull's-eye.

"Everyone is out there essentially to beat me," she said on a pre-Olympics conference call. "It's hard. It's hard to be consistently fast, day in and day out. Vancouver is going to be no different. It will be tough to deal with all the expectations, not just from the media, but from myself."

A five-event skier — downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-giant slalom, super combined — Vonn is being promoted by some as the Michael Phelps of the Winter Olympics.

Photographers have dressed her up in evening gowns for cover shoots. Travelers in window seats know her as the cover girl on Midwest Airlines Magazine. She is Sports Illustrated's cover photo for its U.S. Olympic preview issue and is in this year's SI swimsuit issue (see sidebar, this page).

Vonn has traded quips with Conan O'Brien and made Internet lists that chronicle such relevant things as "World's Hottest Athletes."

Scandal and Vonn have yet to be introduced. Okay, her marriage to an "older" former U.S. ski racer, Thomas Vonn (nine years her senior), after the 2006 Games caused an initial ripple. But her career took off after the marriage. "He's the main reason why I've had a lot of success the last couple of years," Lindsey recently said.

NBC isn't worried about her doing a pub crawl in Whistler.

"I want to be a good example," Vonn said during an interview last summer. "I think it's rare in this day to find people who are honest and moral and aren't arrested for something.

"I'm not out there just playing the game. I'm out there trying to do a good job and be a good person. That's really important."

Vonn is so protective of her image she won't drink a cup of coffee she herself hasn't ground and poured.

"What if a deranged fan wanted to get you, put a powder in your drink?" she said.

The problem with setting someone up for Olympic success is that it can be a powder keg. Vonn is trying to temper the talk.

"My life goal is to win a gold medal," she said. "But if I never win an Olympic medal, I'm not going to say my career was pointless."

Vancouver Olympics

When: Friday-Feb. 28

Opening ceremony: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Ch. 8

On the Web: Visit our special Games site at sports.tampabay.com.

Meet Lindsey Vonn

Birthdate/place: Oct. 18, 1984; St. Paul, Minn.

Residence: Vail, Colo.

Major accomplishments: Two World Cup overall championships (2008, '09); downhill and super-giant slalom championships; 31 total World Cup race wins; 2009 downhill and super-g world champion.

American Lindsey Vonn racks up World Cup wins, sponsors but not Olympic success 02/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 8:36am]
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