Commentary

Vonn pushes through injury for gold

Updated: February 18, 2010, 2:39 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- When the 45 racers had finished thundering down Franz's run, the ambulances and other medical staff had retired to their trailers, the wind had blown new snow to cover the blood-stained course, and the Americans could transpose their cowbell ringing and flag waving from exhortation to victory, Lindsey Vonn had at long last her elusive Olympic gold medal.

[+] EnlargeLindsey Vonn
Wolfgang Grebien/GEPA/US PresswireLindsey Vonn's shin injury was the storyline of the Olympics.

On a brutal day of racing, no one could stop her furious charge -- not her dangerous rival Maria Riesch nor her silver medal-winning compatriot Julia Mancuso, nor a sore right shin whose importance grew so ridiculously fast into lore that it would have shamed Curt Schilling (the famed Bloody Sock), Willis Reed (led the Knicks to their first title, playing through a severe thigh injury) and Ronnie Lott (amputated part of his pinkie to avoid missing playing time) all at once.

And nor did a vicious course stop the onrushing, 25-year-old Lindsey Vonn, a course which played hell on even elite, world-class athletes. Bumpy and frighteningly fast, it featured stretches of blinding sun leading into the shadow-enshrouded finishing jump. Eight competitors succumbed to the speed and sharpness of the course, six of whom crumpled in spectacularly violent crashes that momentarily silenced the high-energy, overflow crowd of spectators.

"She's superhuman," said Canadian Emily Brydon of Vonn. "She did what any athlete strives for: to compete under pressure, to be great in good conditions and bad conditions, to be there when the moment calls for it and everybody is watching. I think she's going to mark her spot in history."

Vonn's championship time was 1:44.19, but her winning time was secondary to the grinding competition of the day. On a course so technically demanding that world-class skiers often lost control and careened off the course, Vonn attacked the run with a spectacular fury -- her average speed was 63.1 mph with a top speed of 66.4 mph -- driving deeper and lower into her aerodynamic crouch to generate speed and still more to catch and ultimately pass her teammate Mancuso, who had earlier set the pace with an equally driven run of 1:44.75. Elisabeth Gorgl of Austria took the bronze at 1:45.65.

"I wanted to ski aggressively," Vonn said. "I knew the stakes. I just went out there and skied the way I know how to ski."

It was an electric day of racing. Both Mancuso and Vonn attacked the course with such abandon -- both said they had approached curves so sharply that they feared crashing -- that the remaining field knew it had to abandon caution and safety to have even a chance to reach the podium. The clearest example of competitive recklessness came when Anja Paerson of Sweden raced out of the gate at a faster time than Mancuso. Attacking the fast track with similar fury to Vonn and Mancuso, Paerson entered the finishing jump ahead of Mancuso by 18/100 of a second.

[+] EnlargeDominique Gisin
Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty ImagesA treacherous course took out experienced skiers like Dominique Gisin.

At that point, other racers said, Paerson went for the victory, taking the final jump at such a speed and height -- they estimated she flew some 60 meters in the air -- that she lost control of her skis and suffered a tremendous wipeout. Watching from the finish area, Vonn covered her mouth with both hands, eyes wide in horror.

For the past week, Vonn's injury status dominated the race, and it was here where her star power and ability to control the spotlight showed. She even suggested at one point that she might not participate in the race at all. Add to that a week of weather postponements and cancellations and the action of total inaction turned Vonn's shin into the subplot of the race.

"My shin was killing me but I somehow found the aggression and intensity I needed to have a good run," Vonn said. "When I crossed the finish line and seeing my name up there at No. 1 was overwhelming, was the best feeling of my life."

While Vonn overcame her injury, another truth is that athletes need motivators. Teammate Stacey Cook talked about her entire body hurting leading into the race. The same was true for Mancuso and a host of foreign athletes who hid their injuries, not wanting to make excuses for potentially poor performances.

Vonn was different. She talked openly about her injury and its potentially devastating effect on her Olympics.

"It's been a really tough couple of weeks, pretty much having all of your Olympic dreams crushed and fighting back from it," Vonn said. "I definitely lucked out by having the training runs canceled. Someone upstairs was definitely looking out for me."

[+] EnlargeJulia Mancuso
John David Mercer/US PresswireJulia Mancuso set the bar high and finished in second place.

Vonn talked about her shin when it healed, and when she suffered setbacks. She talked about putting lidocaine on her shin, and castor oil and even cheese to reduce the swelling and pain. By focusing on what ailed her, she seemed to be creating her own narrative both in triumph and defeat.

"She was under so much pressure, much of it she places on herself," said Cook, coming as close as a teammate could to calling Vonn something of a drama queen.

"But," Cook said, "she finds speed where nobody else does."

And so with victory comes the afterglow of relief for Lindsey Vonn. The downhill was her best event, the one around which the stress of her injured shin, being the best in the world in this discipline, the cloud of having not medaled in two previous Olympic Games, as well as being -- at least for the American audience -- the singular face of the Games created a pulsating pressure that only would have been compounded by a defeat.

Vonn knew this. She had talked about the pressure of performing and how she relished it; how she was so deeply aware of Bode Miller's hype-and-collapse in Turin, and how she would make sure his failures did not happen to her.

And if the moment was too big, Vonn had planned to have her husband, Thomas, be with her at the start gate.

"But I didn't need him," she said. "I wasn't too nervous. I was confident. I knew that Julia had had a good run and it was going to take an exceptional run to beat it. So that calmed me down. I think it gave me the kind of focus and intensity that I really needed to win today. I knew what I had to do. And I did it."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston " and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

ALSO SEE