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The Physics of Winning

The downhill is the longest, fastest, and most technical event in skiing. Competitors hurtle down a two-mile course at 80-plus miles an hour, navigating icy turns, drops, and jumps. They only get one timed run. The difference between first and second place can be mere hundredths of a second—whic— makes the predictability of downhill results so surprising.

Every Olympic champion in the event has come from a country containing either the Alps or the Rockies. Why has no one from Great Britain, Australia, Japan, or Sweden ever struck gold? It’s not the size of their mountains at home, it’s the level of competition. “In the Alps, there are friendly races for the kids,” Vonn says. “In the U.S., there aren’t as many skiers, but you have people pushing you.” Her chief rival was Julia Mancuso, who is seven months older, raced Vonn in national competitions, and won gold in the 2006 games. “If Lindsey hadn’t had someone like Julia motivating her at a young age, she wouldn’t be the skier she is today,” says Jim Tracy, a coach for the U.S. Ski Team.

Vonn’s body mass is another advantage. In the past three decades, female gold medalists have gotten progressively taller and heavier. If Vonn wins, at 5'10" and 160 pounds she’ll be the biggest ever to do it. David Eyre, a former math professor at the University of Utah, explains: “It’s pure physics.” If a skier with more mass can get into a tighter tuck than her smaller competitors, she’ll create less drag and get down the slope a lot faster. “In other words, if you’re bigger and have better technique, you have a really significant advantage.”

And Vonn is living proof that you’re never too old—or too skilled—to perfect your technique. “When Lindsey’s training, she’s up an hour earlier than the others,” says Tracy. “She’s constantly improving her form to gain another three hundredths of a second in a race.” If she doesn’t win gold in Vancouver, someone very similar to her, like 5'9", 168-pound Maria Riesch of Germany, no doubt will. Some skinny little upstart from Sweden doesn’t stand a chance.


The Perfect Tuck

Lindsey Vonn minimizes wind resistance—and takes advantage of her size (5'10", 160 lbs)—by crouching into a tight tuck. Here’s how: Place your feet hip-width apart, press your chest to your knees, and try to snug your torso between your thighs. Keep your poles parallel to your skis.

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