Quiet life could be over for skier Vonn

By Steve Keating

LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (Reuters) - Lindsey Vonn says she can walk down just about any street in the United States without attracting a second glance.

That is about to change: the personable and photogenic Alpine skier will soon be known in millions of U.S. homes, if all goes to plan, as America's Olympic darling at the Vancouver Winter Games.

Having won the crystal trophy that goes to the World Cup's best overall skier for the last two seasons while also collecting world championship gold in the downhill and super-G, Vonn enjoys celebrity status in parts of Europe as one of the White Circus's top attractions.

That has not translated into fame and fortune at home where the 25-year-old American and her small, tight-knit support group, known as the "Vonntourage," operate in relative anonymity.

"In Europe it's different than the U.S.," said Vonn, who has studied languages and is confident enough to do television interviews in German. "There are a lot of fans in Europe but in the U.S. I'm still pretty unknown. I put a hat on and no one would really know who I am.

"I like that; it's nice to get recognition in Europe and once in awhile the media in the United States but it's also nice to have that anonymity, being able to be at home and no one really knows who you are."

A multi-discipline skier who could win medals in five events, Vonn has an ambitious program and a charisma that could allow her to put her signature on the Vancouver Olympics.

With the Games two months away, the wider sporting world is slowly being introduced to the bubbly skier while the marketing of Vonn as a commercial brand is shifting into high gear.

RED CARPET

She has already made the rounds of U.S. television talk shows, tossed out the opening pitch at a Chicago Cubs' baseball game and walked the red carpet at the U.S. television Emmy Awards.

Unable to wear sponsors' names at the Games, Vonn has asked the public to come up with a design for her race helmet, while her race-suit makers Spyder are creating eight unique outfits for her to wear in Whistler, venue for the Olympic Alpine events.

"Lindsey Vonn is a great athlete -- very goal driven," Bill Marolt, president and CEO of the U.S. ski team told Reuters. "But she also has the ability to carry that success into her personality as an ambassador for her sport.

"She pays close attention to her public image. She's an attractive young woman and works at that image. She takes advantage of the opportunities to build her personal brand by working closely with the U.S. ski team and her partners."

NBC has singled out Vonn as one of the handful of athletes the Olympic network will build its coverage around.

While hugely popular snowboarder Shaun White's time on the Olympic stage will be brief, with him competing in just one event, Vonn can expect unprecedented exposure and scrutiny with her events spread across the Games schedule.

If Vonn, who began her racing career under her maiden name of Kildow, is affected by the mounting hype it does not show.

TURIN CRASH

For Vonn, Vancouver is an opportunity to realize a childhood dream. She skilfully plays down predictions while maintaining that her goal is to win a medal after failing to make the podium at both the 2002 Salt Lake City and 2006 Turin Winter Games.

"The Olympics are why I got into the sport," said Vonn, who was not at her best in Turin after a bad training crash. "It's what motivates little kids. It's that dream that everyone strives for and that's definitely what I'm going for this year.

"Going into any Olympics, there's going to be people who are kind of looked at as people who are going to get medals. I don't know if I'm one of them but my goal is to win one medal and it doesn't matter what color."

While Vonn says she would be happy to leave Canada with a single bronze it is Olympic gold that grabs the attention of the American public and potential sponsors.

At the center of Vonn enterprises is the skier's husband Thomas Vonn, a former member of the U.S. ski team.

As defacto CEO of the Vonntourage, he serves many roles: husband, coach, chauffeur, porter, media co-coordinator and contract negotiator, taking care of the details that free his wife to do what she does best -- win ski races.

"My husband has played such a huge role in my career, especially over the last four years," said Vonn. "He's given me so much confidence and he's always down to earth with me.

"He tells me how it is and I need that. I know I'm not the easiest person to work with all the time but he is always patient."

(Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)