Maria Riesch

Lindsey Vonn's risk-it-all strategy: overall, rewarding

Last season, after making an incredible late charge, Lindsey Vonn lost out at a chance at her fourth straight overall World Cup title by a measly three points, in part because of bad weather on the very last day. She said at the time she was "devastated." This season, Lindsey has skied with unmistakable passion, and that emotion has been further channeled by everything going on behind the scenes in her personal life, including the split early in the season from her husband, Thomas, and a reconciliation with her father, Alan Kildow.

When she skis, Lindsey has said, she is "very clear-minded," on her game like never before -- bluntly, like very few athletes, American or otherwise, in any sport, have been in any season.

Racing Friday in Are, Sweden, Lindsey won a World Cup giant slalom.

It was her 11th victory of the season, and 52nd of her career. It locked up the 2012 overall World Cup title -- obviously, her fourth in five years.

"I don't know what to say. I just wanted to have two really aggressive runs today," Lindsey said at the bottom of the hill, her U.S. teammates cheering.

"I have nothing to lose. I'm just having fun. My sister is here," younger sister Laura. "My teammates are so cool, cheering me on in the finish."

She added, "I am just really excited."

Some facts and figures, and keep in mind two things. These numbers and statistics can only suggest how dominant Lindsey has been. And the season is not yet over:

Lindsey's four World Cup overall titles are the most by an American skier. Phil Mahre had three.

The most-ever? Austria's Annemarie Moser-Pröll, with six, won in the 1970s. Lindsey, with those four, is now alone in second place. Croatia's Janica Kostelic, Switzerland's Vreni Schneider and Austria's Petra Kronberger had three apiece.

The 52 career victories leave her only 10 behind Moser-Pröll. Lindsey got to 50, in early February, faster than any female racer in history. Lindsey's first win came on Dec. 3, 2004, a downhill in Lake Louise, Canada.

The 11 victories this season match the U.S. record Lindsey set two seasons ago.

For the season, Lindsey now has 1,808 World Cup points. That's an American record.

Lindsey had 1,788 points when she won the 2009 overall.

In second place in the 2012 overall standings: Tina Maze of Slovenia, with 1,254 points. That's a 554-point lead. Again, and for emphasis: Lindsey lost last year, to her friend Maria Riesch of Germany, by three.

There are five races left on the World Cup calendar.

No female racer has reached 2,000. In 2006, Kostelic reached 1,970 points. In 1997, Sweden's Pernilla Wiberg got to 1,960.

On the men's side, Austria's Hermann Maier reached exactly 2,000 points in -- there was a nice symmetry here -- in 2000.

You bet Lindsey has noticed she is within striking distance of 2,000.

In prior seasons, she said in a conference call later Friday with American reporters, 2k had never seemed possible. "Trying to beat the 2,000-point barrier is something extremely significant. This opportunity may never happen in my career again," she said, adding a moment later, "I'm going to fight in every race until the end."

Indeed, she said, that's what this entire season has been about -- seizing focus, opportunity and momentum and not letting go.

She said she was "disappointed" to have lost last year by three, wanted "to come out this season starting strong and keep the momentum going," and "then the problems in my personal life … have made me a little more focused."

Last year, she said, taught her "to seize every opportunity, to put everything on the line," in every race.

Moreover, skiing has been a source of stability and solace. Racing, and in particular this season, has been a complete release from everything else.

She said, "I mean, I have had a lot of difficult times in my life, just with injuries and family issues," a reference to the arc of her entire career. "But, you know, skiing is always the constant in my life and I can always rely on it."

The 2012 overall title is the 15th of Lindsey's career and the third of this season; she had previously clinched the downhill and super-combined.

The giant slalom that Lindsey won Friday? That was the second giant slalom victory of her career, both this season, testament to the men's skis she switched to this year and the ferocious workouts she did last summer after coming up those three points shy last March.

Men's skis are longer and more rigid. To control them, Lindsey had to be in distinctly better shape. The advantage of using those longer, stiffer skis is that they enable Lindsey to ski a straighter line. A straighter line means she can, in essence, go faster. Thus: new success this season in the giant slalom.

The first giant slalom victory kick-started the season -- in the very first race, last October, in Soelden, Austria.

On Friday, in flat light and in bumpy, slushy conditions, Lindsey held a lead of seven-hundredths of a second after the first run. That marked the first time in her career Lindsey had ever held a first-run lead in giant slalom.

"I didn't want to let this opportunity pass me by," she said later. "I knew I could win but I still wanted to risk everything. I knew I had to risk everything."

So she really turned it on, leading at every interval to extend her winning margin to 48-hundredths of a second.

Federica Brignone of Italy, the giant slalom world championships silver medalist, came in second; Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany, who won both GS races last weekend in Ofterschwang, finished third, 1.05 seconds back.

Two other Americans finished in the top-15: 28th birthday girl Julia Mancuso, eighth, Resi Stiegler, continuing her late-season surge, 13th.

"I am thrilled," Lindsey said, excited and breathing hard, in the finish area.

Asked if she was going to be taking time off to celebrate, she said, jokingly, "I wish."

No one wishes. Of course the calendar will turn soon enough to spring. And even all great things have to come to an end.

But there are still five races to go.

Watch out, world: Lindsey Vonn is motivated

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Traditionally, alpine ski star Lindsey Vonn has been something of a summer workout fiend. This past March, she came up just three points shy of what would have been a fourth straight overall World Cup overall title, denied in part because bad weather forced the cancellation of the season's final race, a giant slalom in Lenzerheide, Switerland. Maria Riesch of Germany, who is Lindsey's very good friend, won the overall.

Watch out, world.

Because this summer? Lindsey was saying in a phone call from Chile, where there's snow: "I have had the most motivated summer I have ever had." Maybe, she said, she took two weeks off -- total.

On Friday night, Lindsey was named the USOC sportswoman of the year for her 2010 campaign, which included that third World Cup overall and two Olympic medals, gold in the downhill and bronze in the super-G.

Evan Lysacek, who also won gold at those Vancouver Games in men's figure skating, was named the USOC sportsman of the year; the bobsled team piloted by Steve Holcomb won the team of the year. Lysacek and Holcomb were both here to accept their awards, Lysacek announcing he intends to go for the Sochi 2014 Games, Holcomb saying he wants to keep on going through Pyeongchang and 2018.

It's not that Lindsey didn't want to be here as well. She sent a video thank-you in which she said she was "excited" to be an Olympic athlete and "hopefully represented the Olympic values," and anyone who has ever observed the many times Lindsey has stopped to patiently and graciously pose for photos or sign autographs for her younger fans knows she understands full well the reach of those Olympic values.

The USOC award was Lindsey's second in a row. "There are so many amazing athletes out there," she was saying on the phone. "I am incredibly honored to be mentioned in the same category with them. To have won this award two years in a row is more than I could have hoped for. I really appreciate it."

This attitude is no act.

This is not the stuff of locker-room cliché.

This is real Lindsey.

"You can never take anything for granted," she said. "Sometimes it's easy to get comfortable. You can never be satisfied. You always have to be hungry. That was one of the things I have definitely learned over the last few seasons.

"And it is very much a learning process. There's a reason people are veterans. They have been around a while. They have figured it out. Every year I have learned something. I am a much more mature skier and a much more mature person than I was even last year."

To recap the 2011 season:

In early February, Lindsey suffered a concussion. That forced her to take some time off.

When she resumed skiing, she decided to simply ski with abandon, reasoning she had nothing to lose -- she was that far down in the standings.

In late February, at the World Cup stop in Sweden, Lindsey was 216 points down.

By the time the season ended, and the weather canceled that final giant slalom in Lenzerheide, Lindsey had closed the gap to just three points -- Riesch ending with 1,728, Vonn with 1,725.

"I was disappointed," Lindsey said. "To say the least."

In May, she went to the USOC's training center near San Diego, to work on both her explosive power and her agility. She said, "It's similar to what I did last year. But a more intense program this year."

After that month, she went to Europe, to "really disconnect from the world and get hunkered down and get a good block of conditioning training."

Then it was to New Zealand, to get there ahead of the U.S. team, to get "a lot of really good info on equipment and get feeling really good, really strong in all events."

"Right now we're finishing up in Chile," she said, literally finishing up, dashing out when the phone call ended after three weeks of downhill and super-G training, and a fair amount of that with the guys.

"I feel like this summer has gone really well," Lindsey said. "I am extremely motivated for another season."

Watch out, world.

Thud of a World Cup ski season ending

In an anticlimactic thud of an ending to one of the most exciting alpine ski seasons ever, Germany's Maria Riesch on Saturday beat her very good friend, American Lindsey Vonn, for the women's World Cup overall title when crummy weather forced the cancellation of the year's final race, a giant slalom. How thoroughly, profoundly unsatisfying.

"Win or lose," Vonn said afterward, "I just wanted the chance. I feel devastated.

"The cancellation of this race doesn't just hurt me. It hurts the fans and the sport of ski racing as a whole."

Indeed, that is the bottom line.

Not to take anything away from Riesch.

She finished with 1,728 points.

Vonn ended up with 1,725.

Riesch's victory marks the first time a German has won the women's World Cup overall since Katja Seizinger in 1998. That's a big deal.

To be very, very clear: This is not about Riesch. Kudos to her. Over the course of the season, she amassed enough points to prevail, and that's how the system works.

But like all systems, with rules and regulations,  you have to ask whether it produced an outcome that served its stakeholders well. Who feels good about this?

Vonn had launched one of the great late-season charges in World Cup history, her charge launched in a bizarre way by an early February concussion. The concussion forced her to take time off. After she felt better, she said many times, she decided she had nothing to lose -- and so she decided to just let it rip.

In late February, at the World Cup stop in Sweden, Vonn was 216 points down.

Then, though, after a great weekend in Tarvisio, Italy, just 96. Then, after a stop in the Czech Republic, 23.

The tour moved this week to the World Cup finals in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, and after the first of four scheduled races, a downhill won by American Julia Mancuso, Vonn fourth, Riesch 17th, Vonn found herself back in the overall lead, with 1,725 points, Riesch with 1,678.

Weather forced the cancellation of the next event, the super-G, arguably Vonn's best event. She had clinched the season's super-G title two weeks before, along with the downhill and super-combined crowns. That super-G cancellation probably deprived Vonn of critical points.

They managed to run, albeit on a shortened course, the third race of the four on the schedule, a slalom. Vonn finished 13th, Riesch fourth, enough to put Riesch back on top in the overall standings by -- three points.

Pending the fourth, and final, race, the giant slalom.

At the Czech World Cup stop, last week in Spindleruv Mlyn,  Vonn's third-place in the GS was the very first of her career. So she might well have been looking at points in the GS as well.

"I'm really disappointed (Thursday's) race was canceled," Vonn had said, looking around at the yucky weather in Lenzerheide, adding about Saturday, "I really hope they try, because I know I have a chance."

Thirty years from now, when Maria and Lindsey are sitting around the Christmas tree, reminiscing about their years dominating the ski circuit, and the 2011 season comes up, and the kids with their shiny faces say, tell us the story again about how it was that Grandma Lindsey won three straight World Cup overalls in 2008 and 2009 and 2010 and then in 2011 Grandma Maria beat Grandma Lindsey by three points for the championship but is it true, Grandma Lindsey, that you didn't even get the chance to race Grandma Maria on the very last day to find out who was best?

How's that going to go over around the Christmas table?

Right. Which is why this situation should never, ever be allowed to happen again.

There has to be a better way. Not saying the answer is immediately apparent.  Just saying there has to be a better way because, as Vonn points out, alpine racing is an extraordinary sport and yet it struggles for attention outside the Olympic spotlight. This is the sort of thing that does not lend it credibility.

Indeed, this -- to relate it in terms an American audience might understand -- is like the baseball version of a five-inning no-hitter. It counts but -- yech.

"I think they could have been working on [the course] like they did yesterday," to get it ready for the slalom, the U.S. women's head coach Alex Hoedlmoser, said Saturday. "I have the feeling they didn't try everything."

Query: Why, in Switzerland, of all places, was there not sufficient snow-making equipment on hand -- or, for that matter, stored-up snow -- to ensure a suitable course?

Or are these finals a clear sign of the ominous global warming issues that have been an undercurrent of the World Cup circuit for the past several years? If that's the case, perhaps some good might come out of this thud of an ending. Maybe it could serve as the spark for a meaningful, high-level FIS-led analysis of climate change and whether the federation's rules ought to be reviewed to allow for winners to be decided where they ought to be decided.

On the mountain.

To ask a simple question: Shouldn't that be obvious?

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.



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.

U.S. Ski Team's depth -- wow

The stars of the U.S. Ski Team delivered this weekend. So, too, did some up-and-comers, and that's why the U.S. Ski Team is now, truly, one of the best in the world. It's not some advertising slogan anymore or some pumped-up corporate motto or even some "let's get the troops fired up so everyone who works here might one day believe it" kind of deal.

It's fact.

It's one thing to see Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso and Ted Ligety on the podium. Each is a proven talent, a star at the top of the game.

But Nolan Kasper in second place? And -- in the slalom? Only one word will do to describe that: wow.

The good news didn't stop there: Laurenne Ross came in fourth in the super-G, behind Vonn, Mancuso and Germany's Maria Riesch.

Over the course of the past three Olympic Games, Vonn, Mancuso, Ligety and, of course, Bode Miller have firmly established the U.S. team as a genuine force in alpine skiing.

Here, then, is the top line from this weekend, the men racing in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, the women in Tarvisio, Italy:

Vonn secured three World Cup season titles -- downhill, super-G and super-combined. She also cut the lead that Riesch holds in the overall to 96 points; six races remain.

And this:

Ligety took third in Friday's giant slalom, his speciality. He is now the clear favorite to win the season GS championship.

Mancuso's second in the super-G,  meanwhile, continued her first-rate season.

Of course, the challenge for any program is to move beyond individual excellence -- to develop a pipeline of ongoing talent. The emergence of Andrew Weibrecht, who earned a bronze medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, suggested the U.S. team was indeed on the way.

Weibrecht, injured, has missed this season. Now come, among others, Kasper and Ross.

"My god, how cool -- we were all, all the girls were in the hotel lobby watching his run and we were so fired up," Vonn said, referring to Kasper's slalom silver. "I mean -- the whole restaurant was staring at us; we were screaming pretty loud."

Mancuso, referring to Ross, said, "It was awesome .. special … so super-cool."

Ross is 22. She writes a super-interesting and -thoughtful blog.

She said of being fourth: "I'm not disappointed. it would have been nice to have been third but …  this is my first top five, this is my first top 10, this is my first top 15 in a World Cup,."

Noting her 10th-place finish in the downhill at last month's world championships in Germany, she went on to say, "This is my first time being in there, really, at a World Cup. I'm psyched with fourth. At least now I know I can be in there. I'm OK with Lindsey and Julia and Maria beating me. They're really good skiers. I'm psyched to be in there with them."

As for the 21-year-old Kasper -- if you have been following the season closely, you could see this coming.

He has, as he said afterward, been going fast in training. He notched a couple top-15 slalom finishes, then came in 10th last week. A close dissection of the stats shows that the 13th he earned on Jan. 25 in Schladming, Austria, included the second-fastest time on the second run.

Nearly 40 other racers went out Sunday. Kasper, though, turned it on, U.S. men's head coach Sasha Rearick afterward calling Kasper's performance "some of the most impressive skiing of the season by any athlete of the World Cup -- he took some chances, put pressure on the right spots and went really fast."

Austria's Mario Matt won the race, Kasper nine-hundredths back.

Miller was the last American male to finish in the top three in a World Cup slalom race, in 2008.

The last time before that, per the authority, Ski Racing magazine's online edition:

Felix McGrath, in 1988.

Again, from Ski Racing: "Kasper's name now joins those of American legends from the early days of the World Cup, when slalom podiums where more routine:  From '67 to '72 Tyler Palmer, Bob Cochran, Rich Chaffee, Bill Kidd, Spider Sabich and Jimmy Huega all picked up podiums. And, of course, Phil and Steve Mahre got a full share in the late '70s and early '80s, retiring in 1984."


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.