Tuesday December 6th, 2011

In the last decade, we've seen a lot of Lindsey Vonn. Three Olympic Games, including a gold medal in the 2010 downhill in Vancouver. Five world championship medals, including two golds in 2009. Three consecutive World Cup overall titles (2008, '09, '10) and 45 career victories, by far the most of any U.S. ski racer of either gender. She has been photographed in ski suits and swimsuits (SI, 2010); she has walked red carpets and sold Red Bull. She appeared in a 2010 episode of her beloved Law & Order, and not as herself. In the small world of ski racing, she stands very large.

We've also seen a lot of Lindsey Vonns, which is not the same thing at all.

In 2002, when Vonn (then Kildow) made her Olympic debut at age 17 in Salt Lake City and finished a shockingly strong sixth in the combined, she was a tall, awestruck -- and supremely talented -- teenager with smiley faces and hearts Sharpied onto her skis. In 2005, when she was expected to win breakthrough world titles in Bormio, Italy, she instead fought back tears in a pre-race interview with SI, nearly overcome by the pressure to deliver golds and by the emotions of a dissolving relationship with her father, who had started her down this path to glory in the first place. No smiley faces, no hearts.

In 2006, she crashed at 70 mph in Olympic downhill training and then tried to sneak out of the hospital, eventually competing painfully in four events, albeit without winning a medal. Former U.S. gold medalist and icon Picabo Street was at her bedside. In 2009, Vonn won her first world title in the downhill at Val d'Isere, France, but only after her husband, former U.S. Ski Team racer Thomas Vonn, whom she had married in 2007, steadied her nerves at the start because Lindsey was, in her words, "Freaking ... Out.''

And then in 2010, she rallied from a severe shin bruise to win those two Olympic medals. And she profusely thanked not just her husband, but also her Red Bull-salaried trainers, Martin Hager and Patrick Rottenhofer (the latter of whom applied cheese to her swollen shin to speed healing). Smiley faces and hearts had been replaced by an abject toughness, but it was unclear how much of that toughness was enabled by others in what became known as the "Vonntourage.'' Especially her husband.

Now there is another Lindsey Vonn. This one spoke on the phone late Monday afternoon from Vail, Colo., where she will race a World Cup Super-G race on the gnarly Birds Of Prey run at the Beaver Creek Resort. This one said, "No matter who it is out there, when you're ski racing, you're skiing by yourself. There's no one holding your hand through it.''

One week earlier, on Monday Nov. 28, the Vonns (Lindsey, 27, and Thomas, 36), announced that they were divorcing after a little more than four years of marriage (though their relationship dates back more than a decade). Neither of the Vonns has discussed the specific reasons for their divorce and their parting might have been nothing more than a curiosity had Thomas Vonn not been such an (apparently) integral part of his wife's career.

His '09 intervention in Val d'Isere was their broadest and most publicized teamwork moment, but Thomas was truly a partner in his wife's career. He was on the hill in training and for race inspection. He worked with ski manufacturers and technicians in setting up Lindsey's equipment. He helped PR people arrange interview schedules. They did countless celebrity-style appearances together. "It's a cliché, but he's the rock,'' Lindsey told me in the summer of 2009. "And he's a great guy.'' That was then. People split up all the time.

In the aftermath of the divorce announcement, there was widespread speculation that Vonn's career might suffer in the absence of her ''rock.'' But she competed almost immediately afterward, and spectacularly, winning three consecutive World Cup races -- two downhills and a Super-G -- this past weekend at Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada. It's important to temper hyperbole a little, because Vonn owns Lake Louise; she's won 11 World Cup races there in her career, fully 24.4 percent of her World Cup wins.

But it's also important to know that Vonn read what people were saying. "I read some articles where people doubted whether I would be able to succeed without the support system that I had before,'' said Vonn Monday. "I guess I wanted to prove them wrong.'' Okay, this makes Vonn the 535,227th athlete to derive motivation from perceived media slights. But in this, there might be a deeper message.

"I've been skiing my whole life,'' said Vonn. "I know what to do. I know how to race. That will never change. I believe in my ability. When I'm in the starting gate, I know what I can do. [In Lake Louise], I proved to myself, and I proved to everyone else, that I can do it alone.''

(Not entirely alone. She still has Red Bull's Hager and Rottenhofer, with whom she is close. Her sisters, Karin and Laura, and brother Reed have provided support, and Vonn told Bill Pennington of the New York Times that she has also re-connected with her father, from whom she had been estranged since 2005. But alone in the sense that the one person she credited with helping her survive at key moments was gone. And she won just same).

In fact, Vonn said Monday that she has been overhauling her system since last summer, when (as her marriage was failing) she arranged a closer working relationship with U.S. Ski Team World Cup coach Jeff Fergus, who now performs many of the jobs that Thomas Vonn formerly did. "He is primarily my personal coach now,'' says Vonn. "We made that change in the summer. I wanted someone who was going to be there for me, from the U.S. Ski Team.''

As a result, Vonn says she came into the current season in the best ski condition of her career. She has been training extensively with Norwegian and Canadian men's speed teams and says, "I've been pretty close to beating a couple of them. I feel like I'm skiing better than I ever have before.'' In the quest for salacious subplots, it's tempting to overlook talent, but Vonn is, right now, by far the best women's ski racer in the world. That helps cushion any emotional blow.

Wednesday's race, moved to the U.S. because of a lack of snow at European resorts, gives Vonn the opportunity to win a World Cup on U.S. soil, which she has never done. And to win in her adopted home. (She moved to Vail as a 13-year-old and now has a home there, and a sponsorship deal with Vail resorts).

Yet Beaver Creek is a far more challenging hill than Lake Louise. Birds of Prey is one of the toughest tracks on the men's World Cup. Vonn's only time on the trail was side-slipping it as a 14-year-old during the 1999 World Championships. "A lot of pressure, a lot of expectations,'' Vonn said. "I'm going to be extremely nervous.''

Her mantra since last weekend has been "Skiing is the best thing for me,'' as if scripted by a new-age public relations professional. But on Monday she also said, "On the hill, in Lake Louise, it was business as usual.'' And these may be the most telling words of all. Cold, rational, professional. No smiley faces. No hearts. No tears. No freaking ... Out. No husband smoothing out the rough edges. Just a different Lindsey Vonn.

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