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Tuesday, November 1, 2011
With Lindsey Vonn, it's never dull

By Brant James
Special to espnW

Lindsey Vonn has spent much of the past seven years defending something.

The most accomplished skier the United States has produced, Vonn has 42 World Cup victories and an Olympic gold medal. She became the first American to win three consecutive overall World Cup titles, from 2008 to 2010, but skiing championships aren't the only thing the outspoken, photogenic face of American winter sports has had to defend.

There's her relationship with U.S. teammate Julia Mancuso, who told Sports Illustrated in 2010 that, "You come to meetings after races and it's like it's a bad day if Lindsey didn't do well."

There are her facial expressions. Her decision to pose in a bikini for a photo shoot. Her criticisms of course conditions. Her supposed lack of enthusiasm after her reported best friend in the sport, Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch, took away her World Cup title last season. There are claims Vonn RSVP'd "no'' to Hoefl-Riesch's wedding this offseason through an email. And claims her friendship with Hoefl-Riesch -- so cozy that Vonn and husband/coach Tom typically spent Christmas Eve in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, with her -- had eroded to the point that Hoefl-Riesch took shots at Vonn in the voracious German media.

"You like that?" Vonn said, chuckling. "It's always interesting."

For now, the interesting storylines are on the hill.

Vonn, 27, entered the 2011-12 World Cup season attacking quite successfully, winning the giant slalom for the first time in her World Cup career in the season's first event in Soelden, Austria -- becoming just the fifth woman and first American to win events in all five Alpine disciplines.

"It's actually kind of nice," Vonn said of her new mindset. "It's a nice change, and I like, kind of, being the underdog so to speak and chasing after someone. It's a cool feeling. I think it's definitely more motivating. I definitely feel like I have more fire than I had in the past couple seasons."

Vonn said she is mentally refreshed after falling short last season. She entered the final months 216 points behind Hoefl-Riesch in the overall standings but regained the lead with two races left, only to lose it in the penultimate event. Hoefl-Riesch held on to win the title when the final race of the season, a giant slalom, was canceled because of bad weather in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

"I feel like sometimes I ski to defend something," Vonn said. "You don't ski freely. You ski as if you're holding on to something, but in reality you don't have anything. You have to ski to get it."

Vonn has attacked her Hoefl-Riesch issue by talking through their differences, she said, and agreeing not to make their personal relationship public fodder any longer.

And for the record, she said, the RSVP report was bogus.

"I didn't go," she said. "She knew that I wasn't going. I wrote her a letter and explained everything, but she knew before that."

Vonn said she and Hoefl-Riesch "are still friends," and spoke this summer at a training session in New Zealand and agreed to pull their relationship back into the private realm.

"Our opinions are still different, but Lindsey has acknowledged certain things, and that's the end of that story for me,'' Hoefl-Riesch told The Associated Press. "... We will focus on our sports now. Lindsey is to me a rival like all others.

"We both were disappointed with how things went last season, just in the sense with how things were handled with the media. We both think that should be the story. It should be about our skiing, not all the tabloid drama."

That will be difficult, considering how public they had made it in the past and the fact that Vonn expects Hoefl-Riesch to be her main rival for a championship.

"I think Maria is definitely the skier to beat this year," Vonn said. "There are a lot of other young girls that are coming up, as well, a lot of really capable skiers -- [world giant slalom champ] Tina Maze and Lizzy Goergl [who was third at Soelden] and a number of other girls. I think it is going to be exciting and probably another tight race."

Vonn -- who said her goal is to ski until the 2015 world championships in her hometown of Vail, Colo., then assess whether she's fit for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea -- has been a controversial figure because of her candor and her success. She gets it. She doesn't regret it. But she feels it.

Vonn has been labeled a complainer for discussing her injuries, ostensibly as alibis, and for critiquing course conditions and their possible effects on her performance. She was extremely critical of weather-impacted conditions on the Whistler Creekside course at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 after crashing and losing a chance at a gold medal in the super combined. Her point, however, was supported on Twitter by teammate Ted Ligety, who said the course was "in horrible condition."

"I definitely think some of the criticism, at least, is unfair,'' Vonn said. "... I've always been very open with the media. I tell people the injuries that I have, and I think maybe I've been a little bit too open sometimes. It definitely hurts me when I see things written about me that are negative, but I've also learned to not take it to heart, and to focus on my job and skiing the best I can."

Although her travails do not usually reach mainstream outlets until Olympic years, they are grist in Europe, specifically in Germany because of her friendship and rivalry with Hoefl-Riesch. That Vonn speaks fluent German apparently has not prevented any misinterpretations. Among the reports last season was that Hoefl-Riesch was offended that Vonn did not congratulate her enough following her Cup championship.

"Totally, totally not true," Vonn said. "It's pretty comical, some of the stuff they conjure up. I know what happened, and I try not to take it to heart."

The defense continues.