Vonn off to fast start, opens big World Cup lead

Posted Feb. 06, 2012, at 8:32 p.m.
Lindsey Vonn, of the United States, waves as she celebrates after winning an alpine ski, women's World Cup downhill, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012. Vonn captured her 50th World Cup career victory by winning the downhill on the demanding Kandahar course on Saturday.
Giovanni Auletta | AP
Lindsey Vonn, of the United States, waves as she celebrates after winning an alpine ski, women's World Cup downhill, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012. Vonn captured her 50th World Cup career victory by winning the downhill on the demanding Kandahar course on Saturday.

Lindsey Vonn is shining on the slopes and outracing the struggles in her personal life.

The Olympic downhill champion may be going through a divorce with her husband and may be dealing with persistent rumors over who she’s dating, but the distractions have hardly affected her performance on the hill.

Vonn is off to one of the best starts of her career, leading the World Cup overall standings by a whopping 482 points as she tries to claim the title back from friend and top rival Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany.

Over the weekend, the 27-year-old Vonn reached yet another milestone — earning her 50th career victory during a dramatic downhill run in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, where she momentarily went down on her hip, only to spring back up and glide through the finish like nothing had even happened.

With that, she joined a select few to reach the hallowed mark. Among the women, only Annemarie Moser-Proell of Austria (62) and Vreni Schneider of Switzerland (55) are ahead of Vonn.

On the men’s side, just three have reached 50 wins: Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden (86), Hermann Maier of Austria (54) and Alberto Tomba of Italy (50).

To even be mentioned in the same sentence as Tomba was quite flattering for Vonn.

“I never dreamed I would have reached the success that they’ve reached in their careers,” Vonn said. “I still have a lot of years of racing in me. I never expected it.”

These days, the slopes have become Vonn’s sanctuary, her refuge from what’s going on in the rest of her life. Earlier this season, she separated from Thomas Vonn, her husband of four years and her personal coach. Gone were the little things, too, like how he always made sure she didn’t conduct too many interviews or attend too many functions.

She realizes the integral role he played in her development.

“He has done a lot to help me. We made a great team together,” said Vonn, who’s won nine races this season.

Although they no longer work together, he’s proud of her success.

“I’m really happy for Lindsey, 50 World Cup wins is an amazing accomplishment,” Thomas Vonn wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “I know firsthand how much hard work went into this, and that it did not come easy. I have no doubt that 50 wins is just the beginning for her and that she will go down in history as one of the greatest skiers of all time.”

After the breakup, Lindsey Vonn began working with another coach, Jeff Fergus, who has been with the U.S. speed team for six years.

“No matter who my coach is, I still know how to ski race,” Vonn said. “It’s definitely been difficult in many ways. It’ a different routine now, different coaches around, different emotions. There are different personal aspects that I have to take care of every day that are not fun. That’s what my life is now.

“But I know how to ski no matter what the situation is. I don’t think that will ever change.”

Vonn also is in the process of rekindling her relationship with her father, Alan Kildow, after a falling out a few years ago. He was the person who introduced her to skiing and even moved the family from Minnesota to Colorado to hone her talent.

And he was on hand to see his daughter capture such an historic win.

“It’s something special to get 50 wins, but even more special to share that with your family,” she said.

And not to mention teammates. Her struggles away from the race course have brought her closer to the squad. They’ve been a shoulder to lean on through the hard times.

“They realize how difficult this situation is for me,” Vonn said. “It’s brought us as a team of girls closer together. I just feel like the attitude and energy on the team is really good right now.

“It’s been really great for me to have so much support from everyone, from my teammates and coaches. I definitely wouldn’t be able to do it without them.”

Vonn has been dialed in with very little rattling her on the course. Part of that has to do with her health — other than a sore back earlier this season, she’s been basically injury free — and the rest to her determination.

“When I’m in the starting gate, I’m not nervous at all. I know what I have to do to ski well and I just go out there and do it,” Vonn said. “I don’t really second guess myself.

“I think that’s the reason why I’ve had more success this year than maybe in past years.”

Plus, there’s always this incentive dangling in front of her — getting her crown back. Vonn lost last season when Hoefl-Riesch beat her by three points after the season’s final race was called off because of poor course conditions.

She’s attempting to lock this title up early so that it doesn’t come down to Mother Nature again. Vonn has accumulated 1,350 points so far this season, putting her ahead of Slovenia’s Tim Maze (868) and Hoefl-Riesch (796).

Soon, Vonn & Co. will be heading to Sochi, Russia, to test out the Olympic course. Vonn can’t wait to catch a glimpse of the slope where she will try to defend her downhill title.

“I’ll ingrain it in my mind,” Vonn said. “I’ll do the same thing as Vancouver and visualize it over the next two years and hopefully be ready for the Olympics in 2014.”

For now, she will keep her focus on smoothly gliding down the slopes even with her turmoil away from the mountain.

“I feel like no matter what’s going on in my personal life, I can always put my skis on and go out and clear my mind and really have fun. Skiing has been honestly the best thing for me at this point in my life,” Vonn said. “It’s hard to describe. Things, on the personal front, they’re not any better than they were a few months ago.

“But I feel very clear minded when I’m skiing and I am enjoying it more than I ever have.”

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