Lindsey Vonn survived a crash course in downhill skiing and emerged with a much anticipated gold medal yesterday that confirms her as America's sweetheart of the Vancouver Olympics.
The 25-year-old Vonn, downhill world champion and World Cup leader, beat Julia Mancuso to give the United States a 1-2 finish in an opening women's Alpine race on a bumpy and icy course that contributed to a string of wipe outs.
"I gave up everything for this. It means everything to me ... It's awesome," said the glamorous Vonn, who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated's Olympic preview edition.
The North American media has followed every step of her recovery from a shin injury in minute detail for the past two weeks.
The United States moved atop the medal table with gold medal No 4 later yesterday when speedskater Shani Davis defended his title in the 1000m, finishing in 1:08.94 in the last pairing to shave 18-hundredths off South Korean Mo Tae-bum's earlier time. Nikita Kriukov picked up Russia's first gold when he edged compatriot Alexander Panzhinskiy in a photo finish in the men's sprint, both finishing in 3:36.3.
Marit Bjoergen won her first Olympic gold medal - ending an eight-year drought in Olympic cross-country races for Norway, where it is considered a national sport - when she pulled away from Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk and Slovenia's Petra Majdic in the women's sprint.
Up at Whistler, where clear, blue skies gave no hint of how bumpy the downhill course would be, spectators with "Vonncouver" ski hats and cowbells cheered wildly while Vonn raced down the course, the noise escalating as she skied across the finish and collapsed on her back in triumph. Other skiers collapsed in pain after spectacular crashes. Romania's Edith Milkos somersaulted out of control and had to be airlifted off the course by a helicopter. Anja Paerson, who had been in silver medal position until she lost control on the final jump, soared 50m through the air and crashed through the last gate. Dominique Gisin of Switzerland wiped out near the same spot. Marion Rolland of France barely made it away from the start before an awkward fall.
It was another concern for the Alpine programme, which is way behind schedule due to the conditions at Whistler. Organisers solved one of the many man-made issues that have overshadowed the games by opening a viewing ramp yesterday to get people closer to the Olympic cauldron on the Vancouver waterfront.
Vancouver Olympics organising committee chief executive John Furlong said much of the criticism of the Games was untrue and unfair.
"When we make mistakes, we have to fix them. We did plan for every eventuality imaginable," he said, adding that "everything is going well" and the atmosphere is "quite euphoric".
Furlong spoke at a news conference after a surging crowd at a free concert caused a barricade to collapse, leaving 19 people injured.