She is among the world's fastest women in getting down a mountain, but there was no fall line in this corridor. Nor was Lindsey Vonn rocking her U.S. ski team racing suit that morning two years ago at Centro Traumatologico Ortopedico in Turin, Italy.
"I was in one of those hospital gowns with my butt hanging out," recalls Vonn, who was single and known by her maiden name, Kildow, at the time. "I was sneaking down the hallway to the elevator, but as soon as the doors opened, these nurses came sprinting around the corner, yelling, 'No, no, no!' "
Later that day Vonn was released from the trauma center, but only after doctors subjected her to a second round of CAT scans. Not that she could blame them. They'd seen footage of her crash the day before on an Olympic training run in San Sicario -- a sickening wipeout at 60 mph that sent her rag-dolling down the mountain and earned her a helicopter ride to Turin. Doctors feared she'd broken her back.
Upon seeing the same clip in his Turin apartment, a flu-wracked Thomas Vonn, then Lindsey's boyfriend, had packed their bags. "I thought for sure she'd blown out one knee, most likely two, and had some head and back injuries as well," recalls Thomas, a former Olympic skier himself. "There was no question her Olympics were over."
She raced two days later.
Despite excruciating pain from a pocket of fluid trapped in her back, Lindsey finished eighth in the downhill. Her grit riveted a nation; fans, Olympians and members of the media voted her the U.S. Olympic Spirit Award. For a year or so, it was her fate to be best known for a run she never finished. That has changed. Lindsey, 23 -- and married to Thomas for five months -- is on a Tiger-like tear this season. After winning seven races in her first six years on the World Cup circuit, she has won five times since early December.
It should have been six. On Feb. 22 Lindsey made hash of the final turn of Franz's Run, a downhill course at Whistler, B.C., handing the race to Switzerland's Nadia Styger, who won by one hundredth of a second. That runner-up finish clinched the seasonlong World Cup downhill championship, making Lindsey only the second American to win it. (Picabo Street did so in 1995 and '96.) With six races left Lindsey holds a 54-point lead over Austria's Nicole Hosp for the World Cup overall title, a feat no U.S. woman has pulled off since Tamara McKinney did it a quarter century ago.
In a sport that is essentially predicated on risk, Lindsey is putting together one of the best seasons in U.S. Alpine history by... going the speed limit. "A lot of the other girls have to push it past the limit -- well past -- to win," Thomas says. Such is his wife's gift for finding the purest line down the course, "she can come down skiing 90 percent and still win by half a second."
"Lindsey was skiing this fast two years ago," adds her speed coach, Alex Hoedlmoser. "Back then, she felt she had to win races by 1.5 seconds" -- a Secretariat-like margin in the downhill. "Sometimes, she did. And sometimes, she would beat it in" (Hoedlmoser's expression for crashing spectacularly).
So she's taking fewer chances, spending less time in hospitals. What else? Hoedlmoser cites her work ethic and ideal body for the sport. She goes 5' 10", 160 pounds and, he says, has an "exceptionally aerodynamic" tuck. But there's yet another reason Lindsey is in such a good place. That would be Thomas, who can be found trudging along, schlepping her boots, skis, poles and, on the best days, an oversized cardboard check.
Serving as a sherpa is but one of Thomas's many job descriptions.He's a personal assistant and assertiveness coach. "He wants me to have more of a swagger," she says.
"She's Number 1 in the world and acts, sometimes, as if she just came in 40th in a junior race," Thomas says, rolling his eyes. "And she gets starstruck by anybody." His quick impersonation of her: "Oh, my God, it's Apolo Ohno!"
Thomas is also her bowling partner, bodyguard and self-esteem cop, cheering her up, for example, after she butchered the late turn and lost that race at Whistler. As an ex-racer he's singularly empathetic. He is over the moon for his bride, and vice versa. "My husband is my life, besides skiing," Lindsey writes on her MySpace page, "so don't even try to get my number!"
Their mutual affection is abundantly appropriate, but not in a treacly, goo-goo-eyed kind of way. During some downtime in their condo at Whistler, Thomas was stooped before a gleaming, postmodern dishwasher, which, despite intense button-pushing, refused to wash dishes. "It really wasn't a problem," he said, "until Lindsey tried to run it."
"Shut up, Vonn," came her affectionate reply.
It all started when they would run into each other at racing venues. "I'd be arriving, he'd be leaving," she says.
"We'd have a day or two of overlap, and we just enjoyed each other's company," he says. "We kept in touch by e-mail."
They were friends, and then they were more than friends. They were very good together. That seemed obvious to everyone who knew them.
Almost everyone. Alan Kildow did not approve of his daughter's dating a man who was almost nine years older. "I can see any father being upset at the age difference," says Thomas, 32. "But I would at least try to meet the person and have a dialogue."
"I loved him," Lindsey says of Thomas, "and I didn't want to end my relationship just because [my father] said so. It forced me to take sides." They were married last September in Park City, Utah. The father of the bride did not attend -- he wasn't invited -- and Lindsey still doesn't speak to him.
Of the estrangement Kildow says, "As a father, as a parent, you want to protect and guide your children." He found the age difference "very troubling," especially in light of the fact that Lindsey was 18 when the two started dating. "As far as Thomas," adds Kildow, striking a conciliatory tone, "she's made her decision, and we've welcomed him to our family."
A pair of eight-inch scars on Kildow's left knee marks the termination of a promising ski-racing career. After winning three U.S. junior championships, he blew out the knee when he was 18 while training with the Austrian national ski team. Kildow is now a partner in an international law firm that has an office in Minneapolis. He and Lindsey's mother, Linda Krohn, divorced in 2003. They have four other children: Karin, a freshman at the University of San Diego, and triplets Dylan, Laura and Reed, who are high school juniors in Apple Valley, Minn.
Alan put Lindsey on skis when she was two. Four years later he took her to an eminence near their Burnsville, Minn., home called Buck Hill, which rises a majestic 300 feet over its environs. There she began training with Alan's former coach, 2005 U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame inductee Erich Sailer, whose early verdict on her talents Lindsey still remembers. "Poor Alan," she says, imitating Sailer, "you have a turtle for a daughter."
Even then, she displayed an instinct for finding the purest line possible. "I was really inside, kind of tippy," she recalls, "but he just let me keep skiing that way. He'd say, 'This is the way you're going to be fast.' "
So it was. By age 10 she was regularly schooling 14- and 15-year-olds. As a sixth grader, in 1997, she and Linda went to live in Colorado. Racing for Ski Club Vail, Lindsey continued to excel. The following year her parents uprooted the family and moved to Vail. "When I look back on it," says Linda, "I say, 'Wow, I can't believe we did that.' " For her part Lindsey seldom misses a chance to thank her sibs for the sacrifices they made for her career. "It was hard for them," she says, misting up. "Vail's a really tight community. There aren't that many kids there. It wasn't an easy adjustment."
Alan sees the situation differently. "Living in Vail is not a sacrifice," he insists. "Vail is where the world comes to enjoy a good time. I don't think there was any sacrifice. Her brothers and sisters were all members of Ski Club Vail, one of the finest in the country. No, it was a wonderful adventure that I think everybody enjoyed."
At 14 Lindsey won the slalom at Italy's Trofeo Topolino, the so-called junior-junior worlds, and earned a spot on the U.S. development team. That was 1999. Within four years she had worked her way up to the U.S. women's A team. Hoedlmoser remembers Lindsey as a "skinny little slalom-head," trying to make her mark in the speed events. Back then, she was better at technical events (slalom, giant slalom) than the speed events (downhill, Super G).
Fearlessness and a "love of the fall line," as Picabo Street describes it, made Lindsey a natural as a speed skier. "She just needed to get experience," says Hoedlmoser. He remembers a 2002 race at Lake Louise in Alberta, when she "came off the top pitch, misjudged a turn, hooked a tip and just ates---. That was some pretty good carnage." Lindsey left that mountain in a helicopter, had a horrific crash at the '05 world championships in Santa Caterina Valfurva, Italy, and was choppered off the mountain again at the Olympics a year later.
Linda was the last person in Europe, it seemed, to learn of her daughter's misfortune at the Turin Games. There had been the small matter of accidentally dropping her Blackberry in an airplane toilet en route to the Games. The first call she took, when the device came back to life, was from a U.S. ski team official who assured her, "Lindsey never lost consciousness."
"I had no idea what she was talking about," Linda recalls. "I found out Lindsey was O.K. before I knew she was hurt."
Linda met Thomas for the first time when they shared a ride to the hospital. To protect others from his flu, he was wearing a surgical mask. They got on famously. Street greeted them at the hospital, having arrived before Lindsey was taken for an MRI. It was a dark time. Lindsey was fairly certain her back was broken. "We were both sobbing," she says. "Peek was like, 'Don't worry, we'll get through it.' "
Even after the MRI revealed her back was not broken, Lindsey was a mess. During a private moment with Linda, Lindsey confided, "Mom, I might not be able to ski."
A member of Street's retinue persuaded Lindsey to go forward. "Her spiritual adviser told me, 'You're going to win. You're going to win a medal,' " Lindsey recalls. "I'm like, 'Really? Then I'll do it.' I'm telling you, I buy into that stuff." The next morning she attempted to escape from the hospital.
Showing serious moxie, Lindsey skied four events in Turin. Her best result was seventh in the Super G. But, of course, the adviser predicted only that Lindsey would win a medal. She didn't say in which Olympics.
These days, Thomas says, his wife is skiing as if "by different rules of gravity." She'll be back on Franz's Run for the downhill at the 2010 Vancouver Games. It will be difficult to keep her off the podium -- provided she can avoid another helicopter ride.