The goal became so overwhelming for Lindsey Vonn. It started on a tiny, little bump of a ski area in Minnesota when she was two years old. It got bigger when she traveled with her entire family to the mountains of Colorado when she was a teenager, and all around the globe in the major leagues of ski racing, where she became clean and fast in a way that precious few racers ever do.
It was there when her parents divorced in 2003 and it was there when she got married in 2007. It was there, ever larger, when she was too nervous to win at the world championships in 2005 and then crashed violently in her last Olympics, four years ago in Italy, and watched her longtime rival, Julia Mancuso, win the U.S.A's only women's ski racing gold medal. It was there for all those summer weeks she spent working out endlessly with her trainers in Austria and it was there when she was made the star of the 2010 Olympics long before they began. She must win the Olympic downhill (or failing that, she must win another race instead).
Franz Klammer would understand. Mark Spitz would, too. And Carl Lewis. And Cathy Freeman and Michael Phelps. All of them were athletes for whom Olympic performance would be judged only in gold. The goal was there when Vonn arrived in Vancouver with a shin injury so severe and painful that she felt compelled to reveal it publicly, in case she failed miserably.
And then on Wednesday morning in the downhill at this ski resort far outside the Olympic city of Vancouver, Vonn took down all her demons at once, in 104 seconds that rank with the most remarkable in the history of the Winter Games. Seldom has an athlete been given greater opportunity to fail at a higher level, and succeeded nonetheless. "This is the best day of my life, by far,'' she said when it was over. "I'm overwhelmed.''
It was Mancuso who triggered the moment. Starting 10th in the field of 45 racers (only the top 30 are seeded and contenders), Mancuso laid down her best racing run in two years, solidifying her position as a truly epic big-game racer. She finished in 1:44.75 on the icy, undulating Franz's downhill, one of the toughest courses most of the women in the field will ever see in their careers. Mancuso's time was .90 in front of Austria's Elisabeth Goergl, a respected medal threat.
In the media interview area, British downhiller Chemmy Alcott virtually awarded the gold medal to Mancuso (her close friend, it must be noted) before Vonn raced. "This is going to be a tough one to beat,'' said Alcott. "That run by Julia was almost perfect.'' (Alcott also used the occasion to take a shot at Vonn's pre-Games publicity, saying, "I know Julia will go away from these Games having an awesome Games and then she'll do her press deal. She knows that she needs gold medals to be taken seriously.'').
It was a sensational effort from Mancuso, who struggled with a back injury throughout the 2009 season and didn't loom as an Olympic threat. "There were times when I just had no intensity, no spirit,'' said Mancuso before the season started.
Vonn would come down six skiers later. Pressure had reached critical mass. Not only was she the Olympic favorite, not only was she fighting an injury, but now the skier on the top of the podium was Mancuso, whom Vonn has battled since both were teenagers and whose steely nerves often decided their races. "Over the years, if Lindsey and Julia both skied their best, Lindsey won,'' said Thomas Vonn, a statement that suggests much about their collective histories.
At least year's world alpine championships in Val d'Isere, France, Vonn had been so tight as the downhill favorite that she insisted her husband be with her at the start, which she had never done before.
Yet there were signs from the beginning that Wednesday would be different. Vonn awoke at 6:20 a.m. and went through a light fitness routine with Red Bull physiotherapist Oliver Saringer, including riding a stationary bicycle and doing a series of exercises to raise her heart rate for the day's work. Saringer saw that Vonn was ready. "She was cool, excited, not nervous,'' said Saringer before the race. "She's spent a lot of time getting ready for this day. We've all spent a lot of time getting ready. So she was cool.''
Saringer applied a coating of numbing cream (he says it was lidocaine) to the area of the bruise. He also applied strips of kinesio tape to the shin, helping support muscles in the area. (The tape would come off after Vonn's ski warmup). "She was ready to go,'' said Saringer.
As the race began, Lindsey and Thomas Vonn were together in a racers' lodge and tent several hundred meters above the start house. Lindsey had told her husband on the previous night that she was nervous and would need him at the start. Now she changed her mind. "She said, 'I'm good,''' said Thomas. "She was strong.'' After three racers had come down the hill, Lindsey left her husband. He would watch the race on a television monitor and give reports to Lindsey on their two-way radio, using a dedicated channel that Thomas yesterday jokingly called "The Vonntourage Channel.''
As Thomas prepared to watch Mancuso, he was hoping to tell his wife: "Ski solid,'' which is Vonn-speak for go 90 percent, don't take any risks. Lindsey is good enough to win most races at that level. Instead, Mancuso forced their hand.
"We were hoping that nobody would ski a perfect run,'' said Thomas. "But Julia did. She put down a ridiculous run. I told Lindsey, 'You're going to have to attack from top to bottom or you won't win this race. You're going to have to take risks.''
Lindsey said, "Thomas said that Julia was leading and it was going to take an exceptional run to beat her. I knew that.''
And that is exactly what she delivered. It was not the most artistic run of her life (or even of this season, in which she has won six of seven World Cup downhills), but like Klammer's gold-medal run in 1976 in front of his delirious Austrian countrymen, it left nothing to fear or caution. Vonn had despised the choppy snow conditions during a Monday training run; Wednesday's conditions were better, but still challenging. "I knew I had to ski aggressively, fight hard and take the gold medal,'' said Lindsey. "Otherwise someone else was going to win that gold.''
She led Mancuso by .83 after 1:12.85 of the run, before losing time to the finish. She wobbled off the last jump, exhausted from the effort and lack of recent training. And then she fell to the ground at the finish, .56 in front, a huge margin in ski racing. It had been a dominant effort, after all.
At the top of the mountain, Thomas Vonn watched with trainer Martin Hager, who would later report that Vonn cried when his wife came through the finish. At a law office in Minnesota, Vonn's estranged father, Alan Kildow, who first introduced his daughter to ski racing, watched a live stream of the race. "It was a pleasure to watch,'' he wrote in an e-mail after the race.
And when the result became certain, Lindsey cried endlessly and ran into the crowd to celebrate with her family. "She just kept saying, 'I love you, I love you, I love,'' said her younger sister, Karin, 22, a junior in college, who was sitting with Vonn's mother, Linda Krohn, and a small army of supporters.
"I've seen her like that a few times, but not too often,'' said her brother, Reed, 19, one of triplets among the five siblings in the family. "She was pretty emotional and excited. She's wanted this for a long time.''
Vonn's victory was the first by an American woman in the Olympic downhill (and the third 1-2 finish by U.S. racers, the first since 1984). Vonn will ski Thursday in the super combined -- one run of downhill with one run of slalom. She will be among the favorites, and she will also be the favorite in Saturday's super-G. There are more medals to win, but the pressure is lifted.
"I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders,'' said Lindsey. "There was a lot of pressure and expectations. I wanted this more than anything else.''
Thomas put it more broadly. "Her life focus has been about this day,'' he said. "Her whole career, especially since Torino, has been done for this moment.''
Her Olympics are not done, but an important part of the journey is finished. The goal has been met.