By Brian Pinelli
When Lindsey Vonn steps into the starthouse this weekend in Aspen, Colorado, the task at hand, at least in principle, will be simple enough. Attack the gates below, stay aggressive down the mountain, hope for a bit of luck and post the fastest time.
Considering that Vonn has consistently proven to be the fastest woman on tour over the past two seasons, executing the above might not pose too much of a problem. However, in terms of the bigger picture, things are a bit more complex for America's most decorated female World Cup alpine skier of all-time.
"What I'm hoping is that ski racing becomes more mainstream - that for me is one of my biggest goals," says Vonn. "Ski racing is a great sport and I want to show people and promote it to get more Americans involved. I think that will also spur more young kids to start skiing and create an even better U.S. Ski Team."
Her accolades and achievements are significantly more impressive since she last competed on American snow - in Aspen last season. The 25-year-old now has two World Championship gold medals to her credit in addition to a second overall title. Her 22 career World Cup wins rank at the top of the U.S. ladies list.
All of Vonn's 22 wins and 47 top three finishes, have come in either Europe or Canada. She has never stood on a World Cup podium in the United States. A victory or even a top three this weekend at home might grab some significant headlines, particularly with the Olympics just under 90 days away.
"This year with the Olympics, I think it's a great opportunity for us," said Vonn. "I'm just going to try and promote our sport as much as I can and hopefully it will be there at the top of the news stories, but we'll see."
"Lindsey Vonn is a great athlete - very goal driven," said U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association President, Bill Marolt. "But she also has the ability to carry that success into her personality, as an inspiration to all those around her. As an athlete, she sets a high standard for her teammates and younger skiers who look up to her. As a personality, she really motivates friends, fans, and journalists to be more a part of her sport."
Last year in Aspen, Vonn finished fourth in both the slalom and giant slalom - the GS result being the best of her career in that event. The last American woman to win in Aspen was Tamara McKinney - she captured a giant slalom back in 1981. Needless to say, a victory by Vonn this weekend could do wonders for skiing in the United States.
"It's something we would love to see happen, but it's not number one on our list," says Vonn's husband and personal coach Thomas Vonn, when asked about Lindsey's potential to make ski racing more mainstream in the U.S. "She wants to ski fast, be fit and strong and also be a role model at the same time. If that happens to get her in the national spotlight in the U.S. than so be it. That would be great."
It's evident that the ski racer's popularity is soaring. At last count, Vonn has 9,210 fans on her Facebook page. This week she posted that she couldn't wait to eat turkey and pumpkin pie this Thursday for the American holiday, Thanksgiving. Her remark elicited 84 thumbs up and 22 comments including a thank you for posing for pictures to advice about not eating too much turkey.
Vonn had a very busy offseason and only a few days after this season's opening giant slalom race in Austria, she made an appearance in Los Angeles on the "Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien. While looking stunning in a black dress, she joked about driving 150 miles-per-hour on Germany's Autobahn. "I do pretty much everything fast," Vonn told the popular late night television host.
The national talk show appearance was the latest stop on Lindsey's Alpine Skiing promotional tour dating back to last March. She also made multiple appearances on NBC's Today Show in addition to stints in Boston, New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco, and also attended the Emmy Awards. This past summer, Vonn had the chance to meet Roger Federer at Wimbledon and also threw out the first baseball at a Chicago Cubs ballgame.
"It's always hard when you have a year with a big event like a World Championships or Olympic Games," said Vonn. "Of course, there's a lot of stress and media pressure, especially coming from the United States. I just try to deal with it as best as I can and stick to the same routine doing what I have to do. Ski racing is my job and I have to be professional and get the job done."
"Lindsey is very intense when she needs to be as she has a plan and will not let anything stand in the way of her goals," says U.S. Alpine head coach, Jim Tracy. "Lindsey realizes that with the fruits of her success comes the hard part of the job. She has a good balance of promotional activities which are good for her and the U.S. Ski Team."
Vonn's competitors also seem to be impressed by her plight.
"I think she's trying to put Alpine Skiing on the highest level in the U.S.," said Slovenia's Tina Maze. "And she is successful but I think she is even more popular here in Europe. I respect her as an athlete because she is working hard to do that."
"Definitely my biggest goal this season is to try and win an Olympic medal, but I'd also like to defend my overall, super G and downhill titles," said Vonn. "I'm going to take every race one at a time and the same goes for the Olympics. I'm going to work hard and hopefully things go well."
For now, the focus for the Vail, Colorado resident is on Aspen. This week-end, Vonn and the ladies compete in giant slalom on Saturday and slalom on Sunday.