4:06 PM EDT, October 22, 2011
The Star Spangled Banner has become the recurring theme in the sound track of Lindsey Vonn's career.
Vonn had heard the National Anthem played in honor of her victories so many times in the past -- once at the Olympics, twice at the world championships, 41 times on the World Cup circuit -- that it was getting a bit routine.
That's why her reaction to the same old song Saturday in Soelden, Austria was so telling.
Vonn shook her head in disbelief, smiled, then shook her head in disbelief again.
That's because so much about World Cup victory 42 felt like the first time for Vonn.
Four days after her 27th birthday, the first race of this World Cup season had given Vonn the first giant slalom victory of her World Cup career. It also made her the first U.S. woman -- and just fifth overall -- to win in all five of alpine skiing's disciplines and first U.S. woman to win a World Cup giant slalom in 20 years.
No wonder the greatest skier in U.S. history was happy and dumbfounded at the same time.
"It didn't seem real," Vonn said in a conference call Saturday. "I have been working so hard on my giant slalom for so many years, and it has always been a disappointment, the (event) that has failed me the most. It was just hard to believe I had finally won."
In 50 previous World Cup giant slaloms, Vonn had abject failure more than half the time, with 29 races in which she either failed to finish one of the two runs or failed to qualify for the second run. Only once before had she made a giant slalom podium.
But that third place came in the final GS of last season, so now Vonn has a two-race podium streak.
"This was a lot of relief, joy, excitement," Vonn said. "I felt it was kind of similar to the (2010) Olympics, where I had been working so hard to finally get on the top step."
That the victory came in this race and this place only increased Vonn's disbelief.
In six previous giants at Soelden, her best finish had been ninth.
"I've always dreaded Soelden," she said in a TV interview Saturday.
That fear only increased after she crashed on the course a week ago. Vonn said it left both her hip and confidence bruised. She missed five days of skiing and came into Saturday's race with just one day of training on the course.
"I bruised my hip pretty badly," she said on the conference call. "I was pretty nervous. I didn't really trust myself."
Even after she finished fourth in the first of Saturday's two runs, Vonn was hoping only to stay in the top five. But she won the second run and finished with an aggregate margin of four-hundredths of a second over Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany.
"I'm definitely excited by the way I've started the season," Vonn said. "I didn't expect it by any means.
"It gives me a lot of confidence for the rest of the season and honestly for the rest of my career. Now that I have done it (won a GS), I feel like my confidence in similar to where it is in Super-G and downhill (in which she has 35 of the 42 World Cup wins.)
The victory quickly allowed Vonn to put 93 points between herself and rival Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany in the overall standings. The two skiers, once close friends, have grown distant since the end of last season, when cancellation of the final race -- coincidentally a giant slalom -- left Hoefl-Riesch the overall winner by three points.
The German complained Vonn, overall winner the three previous seasons, had not given her enough props for the triumph. Vonn did not go to Hoefl-Riesch's wedding over the summer.
Vonn and Hoefl-Riesch worked through the issues while both were training in New Zealand last summer and decided to be neither buddies nor enemies.
"Maria and I are still friends," she said. "We both came to the decision we are just not going to talk about our friendship any more. We want the story to be about ski racing and not about tabloid drama. That's not good for either of us, and I don't think it's good for the sport."
Gotta disagree there. The tabloid tension would be great for a sport that struggles for attention, even in Europe.
But Vonn already is the U.S. rare skier to have become bigger than her sport. Saturday's win only adds to her giant profile.
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