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Lindsey Vonn's real Olympic battle, once again, will be with the pain

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Four years ago, Lindsey Vonn limped to the start of the Olympic Downhill in the mountains north of Turin, Italy, deeply in pain from a terrifying training crash that left her lower back and hip bruised and sore. She was a shell of the dynamic racer who was a threat to medal in the race (or win it), but she skied anyway, and finished a game but disappointed eighth.

Four years later on Wednesday morning, she will repeat that experience -- and that is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's a good thing because Vonn has spent four years of 24/7/365 growing into the best women's ski racer in U.S. history, with two World Cup overall titles, 31 victories and two gold medals at the 2009 world championships. It's a bad thing, because she will push out of the start house in something less-than-perfect physical condition.

It has been the most enduring subplot of the pre- and early Games that Vonn will ski with a severe bruise on her right shin, suffered while training in Austria 10 days before the Opening Ceremonies. Vonn has skied three times since the injury -- a single free-skiing run with her husband on Feb. 10, four training runs of slalom on Feb. 14 and a two-part downhill training run on Monday.

The first two sessions were encouraging, the third was painful, as Vonn skied down a bumpy, rutted course scarred by a weeklong barrage of rain, snow and temperatures that would soar in the daytime and plunge at night. "I was pretty shocked," Vonn said after Monday's training run. "It was a fight to make it down. I think this is the worst course for my shin."

Before Vonn's training run, her husband/coach/advisor, former U.S. Olympian Thomas Vonn, said, "Her shin was sore after the slalom training. We expect it to be two steps forward, one step back." But on Tuesday morning, Thomas Vonn said that Monday's downhill training run had been tougher on his wife's injury than they anticipated. "It's pretty sore today," Thomas said. "It's more sore than we expected. It definitely set her back a couple of days."

That, of course, is not the end of the analysis. Lindsey Vonn suffered through the training run in pain, but she also won the longer portion of the run. "I watched the video of her training run,'' said Thomas. "She skied well. She was fast. She was in a lot of pain, but she was fast. And she's encouraged by that. Those days last week when she was really down and upset and thinking she might not be able to race, those days are gone."

Vonn will race on Wednesday with a variety of pain-diminishing aid, but nothing more than she has used in training -- a combination of over-the-counter oral medications like Tylenol and Aleve and topical numbing agents, which will be applied directly to affected area. "We can't really expand the numbing area, because it could numb her foot, and that would be really bad," said Thomas Vonn. "We can't get into any stronger medication because for one thing, you don't want to use something that clouds judgment while you're ski racing, and for another, you've got to be very careful not use something that's prohibited by USADA."

In the end, neither Vonn knows how much the injury will affect her skiing, because she hasn't raced a full downhill since it occurred.

It is possible that Vonn can win the downhill even with a diminished performance, because at her best, she has been far better than the competition. She started the current World Cup with six consecutive downhill victories before making a huge mistake and finishing fifth in a downhill on Jan. 30 in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Vonn has already clinched her third consecutive World Cup downhill title and leads the overall standings by 137 points over Maria Riesch of Germany. She is a dominant performer.

She also has a history of pre-race jitters that affected her even as recently as last year, when she asked Thomas to accompany her to the start house for the world championship downhill. "I was freaking ... out," Vonn said. Thomas calmed her. Will he be in the start house on Wednesday? "That depends on Lindsey's emotional state,'' said Thomas. "If she wants me there, I'll be there."

And beyond that, it comes down to a familiar feeling. "She just has to grit her teeth and ski through the pain," says Thomas. Four years, the pain was too much. This time, it is a more reasonable proposition.

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