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Vonn leaves drama, downhill field behind in run to Olympic gold

WHISTLER, British Columbia — Forget about the bruised shin, the controversial magazine pictures and all the other hype. American Lindsey Vonn left all of those distractions along with her competitors behind Wednesday on her way to making Olympic history.

"I dreamed about what this would feel like," Vonn said, "but it is much better in real life."

With the win, Vonn, a 25-year-old from Minnesota, became the first American woman to win the Olympic downhill with a scorching time that beat her teammate, Julia Mancuso, who happily settled for a silver medal. It was the first time American women won two Olympic medals in the same Alpine event.

Elisabeth Goergl of Austria was third, 1.46 seconds behind Vonn's 1-minute, 44.19-second run and 0.90 seconds behind Mancuso.

"I think Americans perform well under pressure," Vonn said. "... We don't hold anything back. ... At the Olympics everyone has a lot more pressure, but I always feel like Americans seem to come out on top."

U.S. women's coach Jim Tracy says in six Olympics he's never had an athlete perform so well under so much pressure.

"That pretty much tops it," Tracy said. "(In the past) when we did well at the big events, it wasn't expected."

Vonn entered the Games as America's biggest star having dominated the World Cup circuit the last three seasons. She stirred up controversy with a fashion-meets-the-slopes Sports Illustrated cover picture and a steamy layout in the following week's swimsuit edition.

But the Olympic dream suddenly seemed in doubt a week before the Games when Vonn suffered a deep shin bruise in a slalom training accident. She went a week without putting on a pair of ski boots because they hurt her so bad.

Her saving grace may have been the weather. The same weather the rest of the world has griped about all week and left Wednesday's course so bumpy and hard that six skiers wiped out and failed to finish.

Three days of weather delays couple with therapy that included applying cheese to her shin, helped her recover enough to reclaim her form.

"It's entirely possible that she could have done the same thing (without the delay)," said her husband Thomas Vonn, "but it would have been much less likely."

She applied numbing cream and, yes, cheese to reduce the pain and swelling before the race, but she said "it hurt the entire way down the course."

"She could have skied without a foot today and she would have been OK," said Thomas Vonn, a member of the '02 Olympic team, who later added: "The Olympics are the best numbing cream there is."

With only one training run on the challenging Whistler Mountain course, many of the racers seemed to have problems especially in the sharp Tree Line Turn at about midcourse. Many racers took poor lines forcing them to make turns that cost them time.

Mancuso was the first to blast through the turn without trouble and as a result finished with a 0.90-second lead.

"I saw her run and I said, 'That's going to be the gold medal run unless Lindsey has a perfect run,'" Thomas Vonn said.

He relayed a message to Vonn confirming the line they'd plotted was indeed the best path to gold and he added "(Mancuso) just laid down a run that's going to take your best skiing to beat."

Mancuso knew she skied a great a run, too, which is nothing new for her.

"Jules is a big event girl," Tracy said of the '06 Olympic giant slalom gold medalist.

Mancuso hadn't stood on a World Cup podium since she finished third on the same course in 2008.

And while she appeared cool on the course, she said that wasn't the case the night before.

Tuesday night her friends and family prepared her grilled turkey burgers from scratch with gluten free pasta, spinach salad and candied walnuts.

"I was so nervous I had to force myself to eat," Mancuso said.

That all changed when she woke up Wednesday morning, because, she said, "I'm always ready for the big day."

"The start gate is where I feel at home," Mancuso said.

Considering the back injuries and motivational issues Mancuso has dealt with in recent seasons, she said her silver medal felt like gold.

"Just being on the podium is really a big accomplishment," Mancuso said.

As good as her run was, she knew there were a handful of skiers who could beat her. In fact, she fully expected Vonn to beat her.

"Just watching her, it was kind of like 'she's skiing well, she's going to do it,'" Mancuso said, but when she realized that she skied the bottom of the course faster than Vonn it dawned on her she had a good shot at a medal.

The biggest threats would be Anja Paerson of Sweden and Germany's Maria Riesch.

Paerson appeared destined to bump Mancuso to bronze until she crashed violently on the final jump wiping out a gate and sliding across the finish.

Riesch went next, but after sitting in the starting gate for several minutes while the course was cleared Vonn and Mancuso said the German didn't ski as well as normal.

Mancuso seemed as happy about Vonn's gold as she was about her silver.

"Lindsey had a lot of pressure coming into these games and I think the worst thing is to watch athletes choke under pressure," Mancuso said. "So for her to be able to rise above that and ski a great race is really inspiring to everyone."

Vonn and Mancuso race again Thursday in the super combined, one downhill run, follow by a slalom run. While the slalom will be the most difficult test yet on Vonn's shin, no outcome can ruin what happened Wednesday.

"The pressure for me is gone," Vonn said. "I got exactly what I came here to get."

Hill reports for The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

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