CRASHES, BEEFS, MALE PATTERN BALDNESS-THE ROAD TO VANCOUVER HAS BEEN PACKED WITH DRAMA FOR U.S. OLYMPIANS. THESE ATHLETES ARE OUT TO PROVE THERE'S MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE.
LINDSEY VONN, 25 ALPINE SKIING
REP Lindsey Kildow disappeared on Sept. 29, 2007. That's the day the Olympic Alpine skier married Thomas Vonn and became, almost overnight, the hottest ski racer in the world. "I don't miss her," Vonn says of her former self. "Lindsey Vonn is happier and has a lot more confidence." At Torino in 2006, Lindsey Kildow crashed in practice two days before the downhill final, then returned from the hospital to take eighth. The past three seasons, however, Lindsey Vonn has been unstoppable, winning back-to-back World Cup overall championships, as well as world titles in downhill and Super G. She leads the Cup standings again this season and will hit Vancouver as the most-hyped racer on the mountain.
LATEST Vonn says her marriage provided her with much more than a simpler surname. As her coach and travel partner, Thomas is the yin to Lindsey's yang. He focuses on the technical stuff, obsessing over tactics and equipment. "Lindsey's always had the talent and speed, but sometimes she made bad decisions," he says. She skied full-out, all the time, which led to more than her share of violent falls. "I helped her see she doesn't have to go full speed through the whole course. It's not about winning every gate. It's about winning every race." For Vonn, listening to her husband required trust and a willingness to commit to someone else's race plan. "The things I was telling her to do went against what she was taught to believe," Thomas says. "I was telling her to slow down."
The speed check worked. Vonn has won nine World Cup races this season, including five of six downhill races. That gives her 31 for her career, which is tops for a U.S. woman and within a podium of Bode Miller's all-time U.S. collection of 32. At Vancouver, Vonn will compete in all five events and is favored in three: downhill, Super G and super combined. But Vonn knows all too well that being favored is one thing, winning is another. In each of her races, she will climb into the start chute with the burden of knowing that no U.S. skier has won more than once at an Olympics since 1952. That pressure might have knocked Lindsey Kildow off course. Good thing she's gone.
LINDSEY JACOBELLIS, 24 SNOWBOARD CROSS
REP Remember Lindsey Jacobellis, the snowboard cross racer who fell when she hotdogged her final jump in Torino and traded gold for silver? She has dominated the sport since, nabbing 19 World Cup wins, the world championship in 2007 and her second Winter X Games three-peat (2008-10). Gold in Vancouver would stamp her Olympic legacy. She can't wait.
LATEST Says Jacobellis: "The story has been with me for the past four years. It feels like I've told it a thousand times. I was in the lead and I was having fun. Probably too much fun. End of story. In Vancouver, I'd like people to ask me how it feels to be a world champion. Or what it feels like to take the record for the most World Cup wins. If the story line of my sport at this Olympics is, 'Will she come back and win it?' I'm okay with that. I am coming back to win a gold medal. But I can't control everything."
TIM BURKE, 28 BIATHLON
REP The U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and shooting a .22-caliber rifle.
LATEST Burke was ranked No. 25 in the world just a year ago. But on Dec. 20, following intense work with new shooting coach Armin Auchentaller, he shot to No. 1 (he has since fallen to fifth), making him the first American to wear the leader's yellow bib. Burke has had three podium finishes this season and will compete in all five events at the Games.
KIKKAN RANDALL, 27 CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING
REP U.S. women have never won an Olympic cross-country medal; Randall is the most-decorated U.S. woman cross-country skier in history.
LATEST Randall has won 10 national titles and in 2009 became the first U.S. woman to win a medal (silver) at worlds. But the sprint at Vancouver will be competed in classic technique, in which skis remain parallel in tracks. Randall's favorite is free, which resembles speed skating . "It's a challenge," says Randall. "But the Olympics are all about seeing what you can do."
SHANI DAVIS, 27 LONG TRACK SPEED SKATING
REP Considered selfish for skipping team pursuit in Torino, Davis called team sponsor Stephen Colbert a "jerk."
LATEST Having buried the hatchet with Colbert Nation, Davis will compete in four individual events in Vancouver. He won the 1,000 in Torino, becoming the first African-American speed skater to win Olympic gold, and now holds world records in the 1,000 and 1,500. Davis' goal in Vancouver? Win more individual medals than any U.S. skater since Eric Heiden won five golds in 1980.
U.S. MEN'S HOCKEY TEAM AVG. AGE: 26 YEARS 6 MONTHS
REP The U.S. men have medaled in hockey only once (silver in 2002) since 1980. With an inexperienced lineup headed to Vancouver, gold will require another miracle.
LATEST Team USA transitions from the vet-heavy squads of 1998, '02 and '06 to a younger, faster group led by forwards Zach Parise and Patrick Kane. Team architect Brian Burke plays up the underdog role, while superstoppers Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas give the Americans reason to dream against puck powers Canada, Russia and Sweden.
ZACH LUND, 30 SKELETON
REP The balding Lund was banned from Torino after testing positive for finasteride, which was believed to restore hair loss and falsely believed to mask steroids use.
LATEST After sitting out a year, Lund won the 2007 World Cup overall and started the 2009-10 season in terrific shape, thanks to a new training program (the same one used by actors in 300) and a shaved head. "My whole life, my biggest insecurity was my hair," Lund says. "Without it, I'm as secure as I've ever been."
ESPN TOP HEADLINES
- Lump of coal: Durant (ankle) to sit vs. Spurs
- Veteran Smith: 'Excited to join Rockets'
- Peyton intent on playing for Broncos in 2015
- Chippewas' rally, lateral heroics not enough