1. She's the one with the big crystal trophies. En route to the 2008 World Cup overall titlethe first won by an American woman since Tamara McKinney, in 1983Lindsey Vonn also won the individual title in the downhill. The Park City, Utahbased 24-year-old gets mobbed by Austrian fans, and she returns their admiration with post-race interviews conducted in fluent German. Then she comes home and nothing. Americans care about Olympic gold, not who the best skier is. Which is weird, since winning a gold medal means you're the best racer only on a given course on a given day.
But winning the World Cup overallcomprising the five disciplines of downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom, and downhill-and-slalom combinedmeans you're the fastest over an entire 36-race season. "In this country we get spoon-fed sports that fit neatly into commercial breaks," says Vonn's husband, Thomas. "She won the overall, and people were like, 'Where's LeBron?' "
2. She's checking her watch. Early in her career, Vonn routinely finished entire seconds ahead of the competition. Her secret is something skiers call "glide," the ability to let your skis swim freely beneath you, reducing friction while you move at highway speeds. Vonn has crazy glide, but last season she forced herself to ski 10 percent slower than top speed, in order to avoid catastrophic crashes. "It's a hard thing to do," she says. "You're thinking, Well, shit, is 90 percent enough? But I still take care of my glide. It's tough to be a downhiller without it." Vonn was a slalom and GS specialist in her youth; her technical skills finally matured last season. Look for her to stand on podiums in all five events in the next two seasonsand again at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
3. She's got a Minnesota accent. Hold on, the best female racer in the world is from the Midwest? Yes. Vonn came up at Buck Hill, a 300-vertical-foot blister of a ski area rising out of the flats of central Minnesota. After school let out, Vonn would head for Buck Hill and bash as many as 400 gates a night. Thanks to 80-year-old Austrian expat and coach Erich Sailer, Buck racers have won more than 100 pro events, and roughly a dozen have skied for the U.S. team.
4. Scream "Yo, Kildow!" and see if she turns. You might remember her as Lindsey Kildowthe gutsy young racer who got airlifted off the downhill course at the 2006 Turin Games with a severely bruised tailbone but fought back to compete despite the pain. Normally, pro athletes don't change names in the middle of their careers, but there's some backstory here. Vonn's father, Alan Kildowa three-time junior national championwas Lindsey's greatest supporter, but her 2007 marriage to Thomas Vonn, an exWorld Cup racer eight years older than she is, strained their relationship. Lindsey hasn't returned her father's calls since the wedding. "To the extent that this marriage has made her happy," says Kildow, "we are very, very happy for her."
5. Her ears are bleeding. It's pretty gnarly, actually. Her trainer, former Austrian National Ski Team conditioning coach Martin Hager, pricks the lobes of Vonn's ears several times a day and squeezes out a drop of blood. A wee device instantly calculates her body chemistry to measure exertion and hydration. During an average day in the gym, Vonn rides an exercise bike for four hours, stabilizes her core on a physio ball for another hour, and then moans through two hours of weight lifting or running hurdles. "On the St. Anton downhill course, most of the women lost because of conditioning," Hager says. "They train three hours a day, compared with Lindsey's eight."
6. That's her with the cowa prize for winning the Val d'Isère, France, downhill in 2005. "Her name is Olympe," says Vonn. "They wanted me to take a check instead. I was like, 'Screw that. I'm taking the cow.' "
7. She's into high-end footwear. Vonn will use eight pairs of hand-shaped ski boots this year. "The internal shape is extra narrow so we can carve them out," says Rossignol's Thor Verdonk, who spends five hours grinding each pair to match the anatomy of Vonn's feet. "Formula One drivers have their seats custom-molded from carbon fiber. The World Cup is the Formula One of ski racing." Verdonk has worked on Vonn's boots since she was 11. "I was Rossignol's junior-program coordinator back then, trying to find the next Picabo Street. I watched her ski one run at Mount Hood, gave her my business card, and said, 'Bring this to your dad.' "
8. The girl has faraway eyes. It's like she's already staring at an Olympic crowd with gold around her neck. Unlike Bode Miller, who came up short in Turin and then claimed he never cared about winning gold in the first place, Vonn admits that she very much wants to win at Vancouver in 2010. "In the Olympics, there's so much pressure on the favorites that it's usually the underdogs who come through," she says. "I have a good handle on the pressure."
9. Just ask: "Hey, are you Lindsey Vonn?" It's less awkward for everyone that way. But don't expect her to respond like a sports star. "She and a racer friend were out at a bar in Park City," explains Thomas. "And a couple of cheeseball guys came up to them and were like, 'So do you ladies like to ski?' Lindsey was like, 'Yeah, we ski.' "