Downhill battle

by by Nick Werle

As the US Ski Team prepares to compete on the snow-starved slopes of British Columbia’s Whistler Mountain, its hopes are pinned almost entirely on Lindsey Vonn, the most successful American woman in World Cup history. Coming off back-to-back overall World Cup championships but hampered by a recent shin injury, Vonn had been a favorite to win gold in two or three events, and a serious threat in all five of the alpine disciplines. No American skier has ever won more than two Olympic medals in an entire career. Between her potential to make history and her stunning good looks, Vonn is obvious star material. Indeed, NBC is planning to position her as the Michael Phelps of the Vancouver Games.

Vonn’s promise notwithstanding, the US Ski Team heads to Vancouver chastened by its disappointing results from the 2006 Winter Games. Back then, the star of the men’s team, Bode Miller, was skiing at the peak of his career, and was already considered the best American male skier of his generation. Not only was he a strong medal contender in each of the five alpine events, but he also had a reputation for badassery both on and off the hill. To Europeans—for whom World Cup ski racing is an immensely popular mix of snow, alcohol, and ever more cowbell—Miller became a superstar, in large part for getting drunk in town one night and careening down the Alps at nearly 80 miles per hour the next morning, beating the rest of the field. Americans met Bode through NBC’s montages of his childhood home, a cabin in the New Hampshire forest that lacked both electricity and indoor plumbing, and at Nike’s insistence that we “Join Bode.”

Despite the well-publicized efforts of US Olympic officials, the US Ski Team, and his sponsors to keep him in line, Bode spent more time in the bars of Sestriere, Italy than on the podium. His devil-may-care temperament carried to the slopes, where many of his runs ended in missed flags and high-speed wipeouts. He finished a disappointing fifth in the downhill, sixth in the giant slalom, and was disqualified in three other events. Thanks to the out-of-nowhere gold medals by unknowns Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso, the US team did come in a distant second in the overall medal count, trailing the perennially dominant Austrian team’s 14 total alpine medals.

After a short-lived solo stint with ‘Team America,’ then a Favre-like retirement this summer, during which the wino announced plans to open a vineyard, Bode scraped his way back onto the US team in time for Vancouver. Although he is slated to compete again in all five events, he will be doing so without the same level of corporate backing he had during Turin ’06. This year, attention is surely focused on the speedskating team, which would have been a casualty of the financial crisis were it not for the sponsorship of the Colbert Nation.
But even if Vonn resists Whistler’s raucous nightlife, a trip to the podium is far from guaranteed. Late Wednesday, Vonn sat down for an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer that is sure to dampen expectations: In a recent training run, she injured her shin so badly that she can barely don her ski boots in her Vancouver hotel room. With her first race on Sunday, it is unclear whether she will compete at all.