Thursday, Feb. 04, 2010

Lindsey Vonn

Alpine Skiing
United States

She picks up speed and holds it the way a clothes dryer holds lint. "What defines me as a downhiller is my determination and my need for speed. I love going fast," says Vonn, the favorite in the women's downhill, super-G and super combined. A skier's ability to maintain speed through the turns is the difference between Vonn's ending up on the podium or her posterior. At 70 m.p.h. (about 115 km/h), the centrifugal force a skier like Vonn generates wants to fling her off the mountain. You've probably seen the clips of a skier losing it: the rag-doll figure cartwheeling down the mountain, equipment and goggles flying off in what skiers call a yard sale. Vonn had one in a practice run before the 2006 Games at Torino and got carted off to a hospital. Incredibly, she returned to ski two days later but was in no shape to medal in those games.

This year, no one on earth is skiing better than Vonn. In fact, no one has been skiing as well as she has over the past two years. Vonn has won the women's World Cup ski title two years running, and she's heading for a third. At the Olympics, it's possible that Vonn may win five medals, including ones in her so-called weaker disciplines of slalom and giant slalom. But that's the same prediction that was made about Bode Miller four years ago — and he flopped.

Vonn is a different kind of racer. Miller skied as if he were searching for land mines, and he occasionally found one with his nimble, improvisational, go-for-broke approach. Vonn skies as if she's magnetically attached to the fall line. The key is incredible strength and technique that lets her power through turns that would shred others. She's so strong that she skis on longer, stiffer men's skis, which help her hold a faster line. The strength comes from training six hours a day, often including a three- or four-hour bike ride to build endurance and keep her heart rate relatively low at high speeds on the slopes.

That and being stone-cold fearless. "Sometimes you see me with my hip on the ground and my feet far away," she says. "To do that as fast as we go, it's pretty dangerous. It just comes from pushing the limits constantly."