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As the Vancouver Olympics approach, Lindsey Vonn is the name to remember. For better or for worse, in every Olympiad, American medal hopefuls find themselves catapulted into the spotlight, the country suddenly aware of their every move.
Perhaps it is merely a byproduct of attempting to give generally unfamiliar sports a familiar face. Or maybe it is what happens with such a sprawling event like the Olympics -- so many sports, so many venues, so little time. Or maybe Americans just like heroes and storylines.
Whatever the case, Vonn is 2010's Bode Miller, Michael Phelps and Sasha Cohen. She is, in effect, this Olympiad's equivalent of the helium balloon, filled with expectations and leaving little middle ground. She will soar or burst.
Vonn, 25, is participating in her third Olympics, but Vancouver will be like neither of her previous two trips. The hype machine is all around her, filling the balloon. NBC, the rights holder of the Games, has her face smattered all over its promotional campaigns: television ads, billboards, interviews. Her fans and family even have a clever name for her surging legion of fans, the "Vonntourage."
And she is red-hot on the slopes, having won big over the past two weeks and holding the overall World Cup standings lead. She is a favorite to medal in the super-combined in Vancouver, accelerating the hype.
For her part, Vonn says she's happy competing, making it easier to deflect the hype.
"I don't know why I'm the center of the NBC campaign," she said Thursday from St. Moritz, Switzerland. "I'm just trying to be a good role model, trying to follow the Olympic spirit. It's good to be in Europe and not the U.S. because I don't know what's going on."
In terms of star power, she is alone. The U.S. men's hockey team is a close favorite for a medal, but winning gold would require an upset. The men's bobsled team is surging and Steven Holcomb has enjoyed a tremendous year driving the four-man team, but no individual member is, as of yet, an accessible household name. The familiar mining camp for Olympic stardom -- figure skating -- lost its signature face, as Cohen did not qualify for the Games. And Vonn's counterpart on the men's side -- Miller -- isn't the powerhouse he was once forecast in 2006.
"In 2002, I felt like I was an outsider looking in," Vonn said of the Salt Lake City Games. "I had no expectations and there were none of me, and I was just there enjoying the moment and having fun. I was in a totally different place then. My best memory from 2002 was the opening ceremony, walking into the ceremony in Salt Lake.
"Now, it's totally different. There are expectations and there is pressure. It's less about the Olympic experience and more about results," she said. "You can't just enjoy the moment, you have to be ready to perform. This time around is a lot harder, but hopefully will be more rewarding."