Elisabeth Goergl

Austria's Big Red Machine is back

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — After Austrian racers had on Saturday dominated yet another  edition of the women’s Olympic super-G, the Canadian skier Canadian Marie-Michele Gagnon was asked the obvious: how can this be? And she laughed. The fourth gold medal — out of eight — in Olympic super-G history? The third Olympic super-G gold in a row?

Anna Fenninger, left, and Nicole Hosp on the podium after the super-G // photo Getty Images

On a day when 18 of the 49 best racers in the world didn’t even finish, the highest drop-out rate in women’s super-G Olympic history, an attrition rate of 36.7 percent, the Austrians went 1-3, Anna Fenninger taking gold, Nicole Hosp bronze. Only a late surge into second place by Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch kept it from being 1-2.

Gagnon laughed because the answer, too, was obvious: “Why are Canadians good at hockey?

For the rest of this post, please click through to NBCOlympics.com: http://nbco.ly/MVUPyH

Lindsey Vonn: a champion for our time

Lindsey Vonn skied even faster Saturday than she did the day before in winning -- again -- a World Cup downhill at Lake Louise, Alberta. As she did Friday, she led from wire to wire. On Friday, she crossed in 1:53.19. On Saturday, she went 1:51.35. Lower temperatures had hardened the course; that made it generally faster Saturday than it had been Friday.

Vonn had won Friday by a ridiculous 1.95 seconds. She won Saturday by "only" 1.68 seconds. France's Marie Marchand-Arvier finished second. Austria's Elisabeth Goergl finished third.

To top it off, she won the super-G on Sunday, with American Julia Mancuso taking third. The only other woman to win all three World Cup races at Lake Louise was Germany's Katja Seizinger in 1997.

Vonn now has 45 World Cup wins, far and away most ever by an American. Bode Miller, who won the Birds of Prey downhill Friday in Beaver Creek, Colo., has 33.

It's important to document what Lindsey Vonn has done this weekend in Lake Louise; truly, she has made history because you don't win ski races by 1.95 and 1.68 seconds.

At the same time, enough already with the numbers. They don't tell the real story, which is that we are in the presence of one of the great champions of American sport -- any sport, any time.

There's a simple reason 15-year-old boys like Parker McDonald want Lindsey Vonn to be their date to the Homecoming dance -- which she was last month back home in Colorado -- and it's way more than the fact that she looks killer when she's all dressed up.

She is a champion.

And we as a nation are so eager for a champion the likes of Lindsey Vonn.

No one, of course, is perfect, and Lindsey would be the first to tell you she is not.

But there hasn't been even one significant misstep on the public stage, even as she has traversed any number of personal dramas -- including the split, just announced, from her husband, Thomas.

The way she handled that this week? She made a point of publicly thanking her teammates; her extended World Cup family; posted a picture of longtime friend and rival Maria Hoefl-Riesch on Facebook; and then went out and won, big time, twice.

Even Julia Mancuso, who came of age with her on tour and is a very different spirit, said on Facebook after the first victory at Lake Louise that "you have to be impressed by a 2-second win by Lindsey Vonn."

All Lindsey does, basically, is overcome adversity and win. There might, or might not, be a ton of stuff going on behind the scenes. If there is, she doesn't let on. She doesn't complain. She just goes out, races as hard as she can, and a heck of a lot of the time she wins.

Lesser souls would have crumbled under any one of these incidents:

The horrifying training crash at the 2006 Olympics, so bad that a lot of people thought would have left her with a broken back -- she got out of the hospital and finished eighth at the downhill.

The bizarre incident at the 2009 world championships where her thumb was almost severed by a champagne bottle -- for the rest of the season, she skied with her thumb taped to her pole and won the overall World Cup title.

The crash before the 2010 Winter Games that banged her shin so severely that she couldn't even put her ski boot on -- she managed to win two medals, including gold in the downhill.

The concussion last season -- she overcame it and then, down 216 points, went on one of the great runs for the overall title, denied at the very end by the weather, short by only three points.

You want character, sportsmanship, fair play -- the kind of athlete little kids stand in line, in the cold, to get an autograph from?

One autograph request on Saturday was for Lindsey to sign a little girl's forehead.

"It's really cute," Lindsey said. "Kids just come up with some crazy ideas about what they want me to sign. You know, mostly it's hats and shirts but a lot of times it's foreheads and cheeks and arms. Kids are crazy. But very cute."

And here's why she's so obliging -- because when she, Lindsey, was a little girl, Picabo Street signed a poster, and Lindsey still has that poster. It's up in her house.

"It's something I've always remembered -- how big an impact Picabo had in my life when I was a kid," she said. "I always try to do my best to keep the kids positive and smiling and encourage them to follow their dreams, like Picabo did for me."

That's the real story.

Julia Mancuso's fun day

Julia Mancuso is a big-game skier, and so much more. She surfs. She does yoga. She does tons of high-profile charity work. She is an adventure traveler. It's all part of the package.

When she's fit and when she's been training hard, she's as good as an alpine racer as anyone in the world.

Mancuso proved that again Saturday with a third place in the giant slalom at the Aspen World Cup stop, a notoriously difficult hill.

If at first third place in a World Cup stop doesn't sound like all that big a deal, consider:

-- It was the first American top-three finish in seven years, since Kristina Koznick took a third in a slalom in 2004

-- It was only the second podium finish ever for an American women in Aspen. Tamara McKinney won the Aspen GS in 1981. McKinney, who is from Squaw Valley, California, was on hand Saturday in Aspen to watch; Mancuso is from the Lake Tahoe area as well and the racing suit she wore Saturday featured a Squaw Valley trail map on it, which -- again -- tells you about Jules, as she is known to those who know her.

Germany's Viktoria Regensburg won the race, in a combined time of 2 minutes, 11.25 seconds. Austria's Elisabeth Goergl took second, 33-hundredths of a second behind.

Mancuso finished 11-hundredths behind Goergl.

American Lindsey Vonn, who won the season-opening GS in Soelden, Austria, last month, finished twelfth. The Aspen course has always given Vonn trouble; further, her back has been bothering her after tweaking it in training last week.

Mancuso is of course the 2006 Torino Games GS gold medalist and the 2010 Vancouver Games silver medalist in the downhill and super-combined, results that have cemented her reputation as a big-game skier.

She has always had incredible talent. The challenge has always been her fitness and consistency. Last season, she showed what she could do when all that talent met hard work and she stayed healthy over the course of a season:

Five World Cup podiums, including a win at the final downhill. Third in both the final downhill and super-G standings. Fifth in the overall standings.

She said Saturday, "I was really happy with my season last year. There were a couple times when I wasn't as consistent, I would say. Being in the top 10 I am always psyched. Building off last year, I guess, I can try being in the top five every race. But I'd say I really like to go out and ski and have fun. If I can have a season just like last year, I'll be happy. Better than last year, I'll be happy, also."

In Soelden last month, Mancuso finished in tenth place. She then came back home for a month of training at Vail and Copper Mountain.

So Saturday's podium wasn't really all that big a surprise. She had, as she said afterward, been training hard and fast:

"It's always good to ski fast and to have a podium. That gives me confidence. I'm just real excited. My GS has been training really well. To be able to do it in the race, to get back on the podium, I haven't been on the podium in the GS in a long time," since December 2007, in Lienz, Austria, in fact, "so it feels really good to be right in there, and I am hoping to just keep that going for the rest of the season."

At the same time, the reason she was training hard and well is because, when all is said and done, she's Julia Mancuso, and where some skiers are out there seemingly waging a personal war with the mountain, Jules -- who loves to free ski -- is out there reveling in the moment.

"I really like Aspen," she said.

"I have always had really good -- every time I have raced here I have been close to top 10, or top 10. So I have always really liked the hill. I think in general you just have to think about free skiing -- not really look at the gates, just 'cuz there is so much terrain, it's more about, you know, flowing, moving with the terrain to the finish. Because there's really -- there's the one road where it flattens out in the middle but, other than that, it's always moving and kind of steep.

"It's a lot of fun," she said, summing up, which is the exact same thing surfers say when they describe, you know, like, a really excellent day.

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.