Lindsey Vonn's epic silver

GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany -- Second place? That's just the first loser, right? You don't win silver; you lose gold. So went the tag line from that insufferable shoe commercial.

It's all how you define winning. And how you measure a champion.

Lindsey Vonn threw down an epic run here Sunday, a courageous performance on the Kandahar course to win silver at alpine skiing's 2011 world championships.

"Today," she said afterward, "feels like a gold medal."

It should, and it goes down as one more chapter in the growing legend of one of the great American athletes of our time, because just 11 days ago Lindsey Vonn smacked her head on an icy mountain in a fall on a training run and suffered a concussion.

Austria's Elisabeth Goergl won Sunday's downhill; German's Maria Riesch, skiing before her hometown fans, took third.

Goergl's victory marked the first time that someone other than Vonn or Reisch had won a World Cup level downhill in nearly two years -- 15 races dating back to Feb. 28, 2009.

The American team finished with three skiers in the top 10 -- something not seen in a downhill in 15 years. Julia Mancuso took sixth and Laurenne Ross tenth, a career-best.

One day, meanwhile, when Lindsey Vonn's career is over and done, they will look back and surely some of what she has accomplished will seem almost unreal.

Like somebody had to make this stuff up.

Except it has all been real, and she deserves enormous credit for just how competitive and mentally strong she has proven herself to be, time and again.

"She," Markus Wasmeier, the 1994 Lillehammer Games gold medalist in both super-G and giant slalom, said Sunday, "is a racer made for pressure."

Five years ago, at the 2006 Torino Games, there was the horrifying crash she suffered in training before the downhill. She was hospitalized overnight. She finished eighth.

Two years ago, there was the slashed-up thumb on the champagne bottle at the world championships. She nonetheless went on to win the World Cup overall title.

Last year, there was the badly bruised arm and then the banged-up shin, and saying the shin was banged up really doesn't even begin to describe how badly it was hurt. She nonetheless won the Olympic downhill, took bronze in the Olympic super-G and won the World Cup overall title.

Last week, she suffered the concussion in a training run. She pulled out of Friday's slalom portion of the super-combined. She had made the one training run she had needed to compete in Sunday's downhill but had done so in a puffy sort of warmup jacket, to keep her speed under control.

The Kandahar downhill runs for about 1.8 miles. Alpine skiing is conducted on  "snow" that runs to "ice." You wear a skin-tight suit to reduce aerodynamic drag as well as a helmet. Lindsey Vonn's top speed Sunday ran to about 72 miles per hour.

There's nothing, really, to compare what being an elite ski racer is like. The best anyone can come up with is this:

Imagine what it's like driving at night, down a country road. You're depending on your headlights to see where you're going. You feel incredibly alive, keenly aware of everything around you. At the same time, you need every bit of everything you've got -- all of your senses -- just to keep the car on the road.

Now imagine you're driving just a little bit faster than the range of your headlights. That's the description offered of trying to do the downhill still suffering the effects of a concussion.

To be blunt, and obvious, about it: people can, and do, get seriously hurt in ski racing.

Antoine Deneriaz, the Torino 2006 Winter Games downhill champion, stressing that he was not expressing any opinion about whether Lindsey should or should not race Sunday, said about the downhill, "It's not something  you just do. You have to be 100 percent, and beyond."

Sweden's Pernilla Wiberg, winner of three medals at four Olympics, including a silver at the 1998 Nagano downhill, also emphasizing that she was not offering an opinion about whether Lindsey ought to be racing, said of the downhill itself, "The most important thing is to have 100 percent concentration at the start.

"If you have any doubt when you put your poles outside that start gate, you should not start. You should have respect for the mountain. You should not be afraid. But if you have doubt -- you should not start."

Dr. William Sterett, the U.S. team doctor, tested Lindsey every day to see if she was ready to compete. He said she could. She decided she would.

Somehow, she managed to pick up speed when nearly everyone else tired, at the bottom of the course. That's how she slipped into second, ahead of Riesch, who had run three spots ahead.

No one was going to catch Goergl this day. Goergl skied beautifully, to the sounds of "Eye of the Tiger" blaring over the mountain loudspeakers. It should have been "Rocking the Free World," or the official song of these championships, "You Are the Hero," which Goergl herself sang last week in front of 11,000 fans, including German chancellor Angela Merkl at the opening ceremony.

Again, you can't make some of this stuff up. You couldn't if you tried.

"I could feel the speed today," Lindsey Vonn said afterward. "I think I made some really good turns today and I was happy with my skiing. There were great conditions out there.

"It was a fun downhill and I enjoyed racing it today."

Fun. She said it was fun.