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2010 Winter Olympics: Vonn strikes gold

WHISTLER, British Columbia — It was not a perfect ski race. But for the most accomplished female skier in U.S. history, it was a perfectly wonderful moment.

Lindsey Vonn slid to a stop in the finish area of the women's downhill race Wednesday morning and turned to the scoreboard see if her best, on this day, was enough to capture the one title that still eluded her — Olympic champion.

"I was just thinking, 'I hope I did it! I hope I did it! I

hope it was fast!' But honestly, I wasn't sure. I knew Julia (Mancuso, her U.S. teammate) had a good run and I knew I had to be nearly perfect to beat it. And my run wasn't perfect, by any means. It was definitely an aggressive run, but I definitely had some mistakes."

And when her name flashed across the top of the scoreboard, she threw her fist into the air and fell to the ground yelling, "Yes! Yes!"

"I saw my name No. 1 and I was completely overwhelmed," said Vonn, who won the downhill race with a time of 1:44.19. Mancuso won silver with a time of 1:44.75. "It's one of the best feelings I've ever had in my life."

It was a moment that Vonn herself doubted she'd have just a week ago, after a severe bruise to her shin left her wondering if she'd even be able to strap on a ski boot, let alone navigate an icy race course at 100 mph.

"I put a ski boot on in the hotel and I can tell you, it was excruciating," Vonn said earlier in the week.

The Minnesota native who now lives in Vail, Colo., called the shin injury "the most painful" of her career, which incidentally has been riddled with injuries, setbacks and disappointments. She said she was not in a good place mentally and acknowledged the worst was a possibility — she would be unable to ski in any race in the 2010 Games.

"It's been a really tough couple of weeks," she said. "Since my injury, pretty much having your Olympic dreams crushed, and then fighting back from it, doing therapy and getting healthy."

This was, after all, supposed to be her time.

Mancuso laid down what looked like an unbeatable time, and injuries have hampered her so much that she hadn't been on a podium in two years. And then there was Vonn.

So consistent, she's smashed record after record on the way to winning the World Cup title, as well as the World Championships last season. Her success in the last two years had almost erased the pain of crashing so severely in Torino in 2006 that she needed to be hospitalized.

And then she fell forward on a training run two weeks ago, bruising her shin muscle so badly, everything that was once so eminent didn't even seem possible.

"Yeah, I did wonder (if it was not meant to be)," she said tears brimming her eyes. "With all the injuries I've had this season, I felt things weren't going my way. I was still winning downhill and super G races, but I wasn't completely healthy … then the injury to my shin, the walls came tumbling down. I was really depressed and sad. Just hoping my Olympic dream was still alive."

To keep herself from falling into a deep depression, she focused her tremendous energy on what she could do — ride a stationary bike, treat the bruise with any and every known cure, and pray for rain.

"I lucked out a lot having everything postponed," she said with a little grin.

Just skiing on the injured leg once — in training on Monday — was enough to cause her the most significant pain she's had since the injury.

"It was the most sore yesterday and today than it's been, simply from the training run that we had," she said. "I was just really lucky we didn't have a training run yesterday because I don't know if I would have done it, or been able to do it. I was in a lot of pain today."

The doubts came because of the type of course these skiers had to navigate in Wednesday's much-anticipated race. Most of the women called it challenging, difficult and a true test of even the most skilled skiers. The bumps caused several women to crash; one had to be airlifted off the course.

But the Americans, they owned that mountain with the kind of aggressive riding that has made them fan favorites around the world.

"This is probably the bumpiest course I've ever run, and I think that's the worst thing you can have for a shin injury. It was definitely a challenge just to make it down, but I was focused and determined, and I just tried not to think about the pain," Vonn said.

Difficult to do, especially on the last jump that sent one skier airborne about 60 meters.

"The last jump definitely made me think more about the pain," she said. "That was painful. It's all over now. I've finished. I won. I am really happy."

Vonn said skiing with the pressure of what others thought she was capable of was a heavy weight to bear at times.

"Everyone expected me to do it," she said. "But it's not as easy as saying, 'You can do it.' There's a lot more work that goes behind it."

Her back-up plan, she said, was that if nerves tortured her at the start gate, her husband, Thomas Vonn, a former ski racer, would talk her through it. When he called on the radio to tell her she'd need to lay down "an exceptional run" to beat Mancuso, Vonn said simply, "Yeah, I've got it."

As it turns out, she needed no back-up plan.

"I felt like I was in a good place mentally," she said. "I wasn't too nervous. I was focused. I knew I had to ski an aggressive run if I wanted to medal. I just went out and skied the way I know how to ski."

Now that she has her medal, she'll take each day as it comes and evaluate her ability to ski through more pain. The pressure is gone; the joy fills her heart.

Now she hopes to do for young girls what Olympic gold medalist and alpine legend Picabo Street did for her when she was just 9 years old.

"Meeting her in that ski shop in Minnesota is one of the reasons why I wanted to be an Olympian," said Vonn with a smile. "It's definitely been a long journey since that ski shop in Minnesota. But she really inspired me and that's what I want to do. That's what I hope to do with the next generation of skiers."

And you don't have to have Vonn's skill to be like Lindsey.

"Even if they just go out and ski for fun," she said with a wide smile. "That's all you can ask for is to get out there and enjoy skiing."

e-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com