Lindsey Vonn is the best female Alpine skier in the world right now, in line to win her third consecutive World Cup title. She heads into the Vancouver Games as a leading gold-medal candidate in several events, and given the right circumstances, an Olympic medal in each event would not be out of the question.
But what makes her so great?
Christin Cooper, a 1984 Olympic silver medalist in Alpine sking and an NBC analyst, broke down Vonn's strengths, event-by-event, and even pointed out where there is room for improvement.
This year Lindsey Vonn has been close to perfect in downhill. There are virtually no chinks in her armor in speed events, due to:
Superior conditioning: "Lindsey has raised the bar in women's skiing in the area of conditioning. She spends six-eight hours a day, six days a week in the gym during the preseason, then maintains an in-season routine that includes stationary bike work-outs in the pre-dawn (to warm up) and again in the evening (to spin out the lactic acid and maintain her aerobic base) as well as core strength exercises when many competitors are conserving energy for on-snow work."
Fast skis: "Lindsey's fitness allows her to control longer, stiffer skis. She is the only woman on the World Cup tour using men's speed skis, which are designed and built for bigger, stronger skiers. The skis' tortional stiffness require more strength, but allow her to generate more power and speed in the turns, while their longer running surface means they glide faster on the flats."
Professional support system: "Lindsey's husband (and 2002 Olympic skier), Thomas, is a unique weapon in her arsenal. As her 24/7 confidant, personal coach, ski tech and adviser, he works alongside the U.S. women's coaches, with full responsibility for equipment testing and selection, which varies with snow conditions and course sets. The two inspect courses together and Lindsey credits Thomas with teaching her better tactics for difficult course sets. He also helps her manage and balance her copious responsibilities to sponsors and media with multi-event training, rest, work-outs, etc. - a combination that is potentially overwhelming. Lindsey also has two personal trainers provided by her primary sponsor, Red Bull, who manage her physical conditioning and nutritional needs on the road."
Technique: "Lindsey has a masterful touch and feel for the snow in downhill with an instinctive knowledge of when and how much energy to put into a turn. Her transitions between arcs are smooth and soft, belying a total commitment to the most direct, aggressive line possible, neither backing away nor overpowering the turns. This combination of skills and desire for finding speed everywhere and anywhere is currently unmatched on the women's tour and has left her rivals at a loss as to how to beat her."
Confidence: "Entering every downhill as the overwhelming favorite allows her to ski a more relaxed race while others force mistakes or take risks to keep pace. Lindsey can win at 90% and has proven able to make a few mistakes and still cruise to victory, while her rivals must ski flawlessly to even contend. Without having to risk as much, she reduces the number of errors she makes in comparison to her competition."
All of the factors that apply to downhill apply to super-G as well. The main difference is that there are no training runs, so instincts for line and courage are more of a premium. Being stronger and more powerful than the competition allows her to take a direct line, condense the arc and hold and withstand the forces that many of her competitors can't. Lindsey has also improved her ability to memorize and anticipate potential danger spots, checking speed if necessary to maintain an even flow down the mountainn. She is also known for using the maximum time allowed to inspect the course on the morning of a super-G.
Giant slalom is widely considered the most difficult discipline to master, as it requires the most miles of training to dial in timing and line. The increasingly high-speed turns of modern GS are negotiated in a more condensed space than in the speed disciplines, so there is less forgiveness for mistakes. It's hard to correct errors without throwing skis into a skid.
Lindsey tends to go too directly at the gates in GS and load the ski up all at once, whereas GS specialists like Kathrin Hölzl, Kathrin Zettel and Tanja Poutiainen ski a more relaxed line, build the pressure more gradually and control their acceleration.
Lindsey hoped to focus on improving her GS (the only Alpine discipline in which she has never finished on the World Cup podium) this season, but the equipment switch to Head meant time and energy spent searching for the right ski/boot combination, instead of training.
All of that said, Lindsey had her best single run of GS ever this year, a 3rd in Maribor. She didn't finish the 2nd run, but look out when she gets this thing dialed.
Lindsey and Thomas focused on slalom tactics for two years leading into the 2008-09 season when she surprised the world - and herself - with her first (of two career) World Cup slalom wins. Speed in slalom is generated by bending the ski and releasing it in rapid-fire rapid succession over 50 gates of varying rhythms at the rate of about a half second per turn. She worked on adjusting her line to adapt to terrain and rhythm changes, rather than aggressively choosing the most direct line every time.
The correct boot/ski set up is also crucial to stay forward and in control in the mad chaos of gates. This year, Lindsey's switch to new equipment has resulted in a temporary loss of her touch and feel in this event. She is still searching for the right combination of boot, ski and binding plate - the "set-up" - of which there are a thousand variations. The process was complicated by a mid-season wrist injury which threw off her slalom just as she was seeing progress - the arm, wrist and hand are used in slalom to block gates and make rapid pole plants. Her arm is healed now but she is still working to rediscover the touch and feel she had in 2009.
Lindsey has the mental focus and physical fitness to handle a long multi-disciplinary day, and with speed as her strong suit, she often brings a healthy lead into the slalom portion. This allows her to control the board in the final run, gauge what her competitors have done and have the luxury of choosing a more conservative - and safe - run of slalom to make the podium.
Christin Cooper will serve as an Alpine skiing analyst for NBC during the Vancouver Games. She is a two-time Olympian and won a giant slalom silver medal in 1984. She is the only American female skier to win three medals at a single World Championships.