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Vonn, Vancouver give Alpine chance to lift profile

Lindsey Vonn recalls being mobbed by fans when Alpine skiing's World Cup made its debut stop at Bansko, Bulgaria, a year ago.

Even with her husband, her coach, two trainers and two bodyguards flanking her, Vonn felt trapped by the boisterous crowd while trying to exit the finish area.

"We just couldn't escape," the two-time overall World Cup champion says, "and people were attacking me and trying to jump on me. It was definitely a surreal experience."

Vonn has grown accustomed to such scenes when she's overseas, where ski racing is a major sport. As 2006 Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety explains: "In Europe, ski racing is definitely a lot crazier and a lot more popular."

In the United States? Not so much.

"I don't think most people in Times Square would know what ski racing was, let alone know who I was," Vonn says with a sigh. "But that's fine. It's nice to be anonymous and go places without people knowing who you are, sometimes."

The 25-year-old Vonn, who lives and trains in Vail, Colo., sees the close-to-home Feb. 12-28 Vancouver Olympics as a real chance to boost Alpine skiing's profile in the United States.

Others in the sport agree — and see the charismatic and talented American as someone who could help make that happen.

"Everybody knows the Olympics is a huge opportunity for us," U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CEO Bill Marolt says. "It's our chance to shine. It's our chance to promote the organization — USSA, U.S. Ski Team, U.S. Snowboarding — but it's also our opportunity to promote the sport. We can make some real progress with some success."

That points to Vonn, whom Marolt calls "the whole package."

"She understands her role. ... She understands that she's got to be ready, and she's got to perform. But then, after the athletic contest, and after she's had success, she needs to make herself available — to fans, to kids, to media, to sponsors," Marolt says. "That's critical for her and her future, and it's critical for the industry, and what we're trying to do as a sport."

Alpine skiing, of course, is hardly the only niche sport hoping to build some buzz at these Winter Games. Officials from such events as curling (think brooms) and biathlon (think skis and guns) know what's at stake, too.

"It's huge for us. We're expecting or anticipating full-game coverage both of the morning and afternoon draws. ... We hope to parlay that into other coverage down the road," says Rick Patzke, USA Curling's chief operating officer.

"This is our time to shine and then build off of that," Patzke adds.

Max Cobb, executive director of U.S. Biathlon, talks about all of the extra media coverage his sport will get this month as "really important to inspiring the next generation of Nordic athletes."

Here's something the most optimistic officials might also be pondering: Perhaps fans' attention will be spread around more than usual during these Olympics because there is no standout American female figure skater, no one expected to be as big a deal in her sport as Vonn could be in hers.

"If we can have a little success early, I think there's a chance we can get a lot of focus," Marolt says.

Figure skating is the no-doubt-about-it No. 1 Winter Olympics event when it comes to U.S. TV ratings. But its prominence in the United States has declined over the last four years because there is no blockbuster American female star right now, the way Michelle Kwan was for a decade.

No American woman has earned a medal at the world championships since 2006, and neither Kimmie Meissner, who won gold that year, nor Sasha Cohen, who won bronze, is on the U.S. Olympic team this time around.

Still, counting on a long-standing general appeal, NBC will air every figure skating event live and in prime time in the Eastern and Central time zones. There also will be a "Vancouver Figure Skating Hour" each afternoon on Universal Sports.

Alpine skiing gets no such treatment. NBC will show the races on tape in the evening, which should add to the exposure, even if results will be known.

Current and former ski racers figure that anyone who does tune in can't help but get hooked.

"There are certain sports you don't need to know anything about — car racing, sprinting, bull fighting. Ski racing is like that," says Billy Kidd, who won a silver medal for the United States in the slalom at the 1964 Olympics. "When you go from the top of the mountain down to the valley floors as fast as you can, and you average 65 mph — the speed limit on the interstate — and all you have for protection is long underwear and a thin layer of Lycra, that's a pretty interesting sport. People are still interested in watching it on their televisions."

NBC has made Vonn one of the focal points of its advertising in the lead-up to the Olympics.

Other racers recognize that if she fares well, their sport will, too.

"Lindsey's success has been great for us as a team, in general," U.S. downhiller Andrew Weibrecht says. "As a country, we don't get a whole lot of exposure as ski racers, unless somebody's right at the top, kind of dominating the sport."

Vonn's been doing that the past few years on the World Cup circuit.

Now she'll take to a bigger stage, aiming to win medals — and win some new fans for her sport.

"I've been pushing skiing for the last few years, with the media and everything, and trying to get people excited about it," Vonn says. "But the Olympics is really the time when America pays attention."

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AP National Writer Nancy Armour, and AP Sports Writers Doug Alden and Pat Graham contributed to this report.