Winter Olympics: Lindsey Vonn thrills America by crushing downhill rivals

• 'Face' of 2010 wins first gold medal
• Troubling day sees number of crashes

The American dream is on. Lindsey Vonn, billed as the "face" of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, succeeded in the first of her attempts to win five gold medals yesterday with a crushing victory in the women's downhill.

The darling of the US Olympic team, feted by million-dollar sponsors and television networks in equal measures, navigated her way down a treacherous course at Whistler while others faltered and fell, beating her nearest challenger Julia Mancuso, by 0.56sec - a sliver on the clock, a lifetime in a downhill. "This means everything to me," she said afterwards. "I dreamed about what this would feel like, but it is much better in real life."

Yet while Vonn bathed in the euphoria of victory, it was troubling day on the hill for the event organisers after a series of crashes, one of which meant the race had to be delayed while the Romanian skier Edith Miklos was airlifted to hospital. Anja Paerson, a five-time Olympic medallist, was another who fell heavily near the end of the course - a spot that caused trouble for many skiers. "She is OK," the Swede's coach, Ulf Emilsson, said. "If you see the crash it is amazing that she can actually walk. She is happy to have survived the crash as well as she did."

Others succumbed in less spectacular fashion, such as Marion Roland of France, ranked fifth in the world, who caught an edge only six seconds into her run and fell over, but Chemmy Alcott was among those who did make it down to the bottom.

The British skier, who finished 13th, was full of praise for the course. "It's the perfect women's downhill, the best I've ever skied," she said. "And today Mother Nature did us a favour as well with the conditions. It's bumpy, it's icy and it's great fun. You look at this and you think to yourself: 'This is what we do this sport for.' I think I could have gone quicker but I made a few silly mistakes. But it's the Chemmy way."

Alcott will be back on the hill today for the super combined, her best event. Yet if the Londoner harbours ambitions of perhaps sneaking an unlikely bronze, for Vonn the immediate future is gold, literally and figuratively, although nothing is certain at this level of competition, and certainly not when the conditions are this unpredictable.

What is certain, however, is that the American but will not enjoy a more dominant victory. Sixteenth out of the starting gate, it seemed Vonn might be undone by a marvellous effort from her countrywoman, rival and defending champion Mancuso, who herself was almost one second in front of the next best skier.

Vonn has lost only one downhill race this season, for reasons that quickly become apparent. By the first split, she was fractions in front, by the halfway point her advantage had edged above half a second and by the end she was cruising.

The hugely talented, and photogenic, 25-year-old featured on a dozen magazine covers and played a starring role in the American TV network NBC's promotion of its coverage from Vancouver (for which is paid more than £500m). She was expected to provide one of the main storylines of the games.

Comparisons were being made with the swimmer Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals at the 2008 summer Games in Beijing, although Vonn, who has entered all five alpine events here, sought to play down expectation. "I would just like to win one medal, it doesn't matter which kind," she said, mindful perhaps that her male compatriot Bode Miller arrived at the Games in Turin four years with ambitions of sweeping the medals only to depart without a solitary bauble.

With yesterday's victory in the blue-riband event of the women's programme, Vonn has escaped Miller's unhappy fate. She can now look forward with confidence, both in her abilities and in the fact that her injury shin, revealed when she arrived in Canada last week, will stand up the rigours of competition.

"It was a fight just to make it down the whole way," she sad after the final training run on Monday. "I was barely in my tuck in any part of the course. It is probably the worst possible course for my shin." But she posted the fastest time of the training day - an achievement that had some of her opponents rolling their eyes.

Leading the sceptics' charge was Germany's Maria Riesch, the American's friend and chief rival. "I don't think the injury is that bad," she sad before the start of yesterday's race. The truth is the world will never know how bad the injury really was. But the world now knows this: Lindsey Vonn is good.


Lawrence Donegan in Vancouver

The GuardianTramp

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