Lindsey Vonn back in the lead

There are three races to go, and the way this World Cup season has gone, it’s stating the obvious to observe that anything can happen. But suddenly Lindsey Vonn is leading the World Cup overall points race.

Two weeks ago, that seemed — if not impossible — surely improbable.

As of last week it seemed only marginally possible but hardly probable.

Now, after the last downhill of the season, it is fact. Attention, Hollywood screenwriters  — is this a gift, or what? In early February, Vonn was knocked out with a concussion, and now — now she has roared back to lead the standings, with just three races to go. Could you dream it up any better?

American Julia Mancuso, who has herself had a great season, won Wednesday’s race in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, her first victory on the World Cup tour in four years. Vonn took fourth. Vonn’s very good friend, Germany’s Maria Riesch, who has for most of the season held the overall points lead, finished Wednesday’s race in 17th place, a strangely cautious run that earned her zero World Cup points.

 

U.S. Ski Team coaches celebrate after Wednesday's downhill with Lindsey Vonn (with globe) and Julia Mancuso //photo: U.S. Ski Team

 

Vonn earned 50 race points.

She now has 1,705 points.

Riesch has 1,678.

“It’s tough,” Riesch said later, according to Associated Press, “when you have led the whole season and suddenly you get knocked off the top.”

The wire service also reported that Riesch slumped to the snow in the finish area and was later shown on television sitting with her head in her hands in the equipment inspection hut.

All of which is a reminder that for all the physicality of elite alpine racing the sport is so much a mental game.

Particularly these past couple weeks for Vonn and Riesch.

Again, to be obvious — there are three races to go, and anything can happen.

Anything. That is the nature of ski racing.

But if you are in the American camp you have to like the trend.

Over the first weekend of March, skiing in Tarvisio, Italy, Vonn clinched the downhill, super-G and super-combined season titles and cut Riesch’s overall points lead to just 96 points.

Last week, at the Czech resort Splinderuv Mlyn, Vonn took a career-best third in giant slalom, with Riesch 29th. That cut Riesch’s lead to 38.

Then, in the slalom, Vonn finished 16th — which, remarkably, was her first completed slalom run since late November. Riesch, meanwhile, skied out. Riesch’s lead: 23.

If you are in the American camp, meanwhile, what you really have to like is where Lindsey Vonn’s head is at — and while high school English teachers everywhere might not approve of the construction of that sentence, that’s the way it is.

Rarely in world-class sport do you hear an exposition of the sort that Lindsey Vonn delivered Wednesday, at a news conference, when she was asked why it’s all going so right. Like her skiing, she just let it rip.

Here, according to an audiotape of the news conference posted by the U.S. Ski Team, is what she said:

“I mean, honestly, it would be much better, much easier, if I were in the lead by 200 points. But it has been really exciting to be the one chasing the overall, to be the underdog.

“Maria has been in the lead of the overall since like right after christmas and I have been chasing her, chasing her, chasing her ever since.  You know, I feel like after Are,” the World Cup stop in Sweden the last weekend in February, “I just said, ‘OK, you just have to risk everything every day. You have to ski as best you can. You can’t be nervous. You can’t hold back. You have to give it everything you have.’

“I think I have been skiing more relaxed than I ever have because of that. It is definitely a different tactic. It is definitely a position I have never been in before. It’s exciting. I don’t know — I kind of enjoy the new challenge. The last three weeks have gone really well. Like I said earlier, I’m proud of myself for being able to come from behind, to say I’m in the hunt at the finals. So — yeah.”

To know Lindsey is to know how much that little, “So — yeah,” at the end really says. It says she is on her game, and totally.

If she holds on, she will win her fourth straight World Cup overall title. She said a couple weeks ago that if she were to win this fourth in a row it would be the “most rewarding” of her career because, obviously, she was down by so many points.

She said Wednesday, “I still feel like I’m an underdog,” adding a moment later, “Maria is dangerous in all events. I have to be ready and on my game in every race.”

Three to go.

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