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Lindsey Vonn returns as the face of a talent-rich U.S. ski team

Nathan Fenno, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Olympics

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Lindsey Vonn waited eight years to return to the Winter Olympics.

But the waiting continued when the U.S. Alpine skiing icon boarded a flight from Munich, Germany, to Seoul on Wednesday for the Pyeongchang Games.

Vonn, who missed the Sochi Olympics in 2014 because of an injured right knee, eventually had to switch planes. Then the replacement flight sat on the tarmac for six hours.

"Well hopefully we get to Korea," Vonn tweeted to more than 980,000 followers.

When she finally arrived -- the last U.S. athlete to go through team processing -- the journey had taken 24 hours. The long wait is almost over.

"I want to end on a high note," said Vonn, whose first race is the super-G on Feb. 17. "I want to put an exclamation point on my career."

The three-time Olympian is the biggest name in the 11 days of Alpine competition in the windswept Taebaek Mountains.

Vonn, 33, won two World Cup downhill races in Germany last weekend, giving her 81 career victories. The all-time record is 86 wins, a mark she expects to surpass.

But Vonn is focused on the Olympics after a series of injuries the last four years. There's the right knee, a broken left ankle, hairline fracture in her left knee and broken right arm.

Finally healthy, Vonn will compete in the downhill, her best event for which she collected a gold medal at the Vancouver Games in 2010, super-G and combined. Her knee prevents her from trying the giant slalom.

Regardless of the outcome, Vonn expects this to be her final Olympics.

"It's what I think about when I wake up and it's what I think about when I go to sleep," she said of the Games.

But Vonn's preeminence will be challenged by U.S. teammate Mikaela Shiffrin. She is the world's most dominant skier, amassing almost twice as many overall points as Switzerland's Wendy Holdener, the No. 2 competitor on the World Cup circuit this season.

At the Sochi Olympics, Shiffrin, 22, became the youngest competitor to ever win the slalom. And she hasn't slowed down. Shiffrin won nine of 10 races during a three-week stretch in December and January.

She's the heavy favorite to defend the title in the slalom and will contend to finish on the podium in the giant slalom and combined events, as well.

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"There's a target on my back and I'm just trying to stay ahead of the arrow that's trying to catch me," Shiffrin said recently.

But two of the most familiar names in U.S. skiing won't be competing in Pyeongchang. Instead, Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso will be working for NBC.

Miller, who won six Olympic medals, retired in October. Mancuso, the most decorated female U.S. Olympic skier, followed suit in January, unable to fully return after right hip surgery that sidelined her for two seasons.

There are other absences. Two of the best U.S. speed specialists, Steven Nyman and Travis Ganong, suffered serious knee injuries in the last month and a half that kept them at home. And Jackie Wiles, expected to be a key part of the women's team, suffered several serious injuries to her left leg after crashing in Germany last week.

Chip White, the U.S. women's speed coach, called the loss of Wiles "difficult to watch."

But Ted Ligety -- nicknamed "Ted Shred" and "Mr. GS" -- returns. The giant slalom champion in Sochi hasn't had an easy path back. He underwent back surgery 13 months ago and returned from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in 2016.

Ligety finished third in the giant slalom last month in the final World Cup tune-up before the Olympics, his first podium since 2015.

"It was kind of a relief to be back in a spot where I feel like I can challenge for wins," Ligety said. "It's been a long time."

Though teammate Andrew Weibrecht won super-G medals in Sochi and Vancouver, he hasn't finished better than 14th in a World Cup race this year.

But the attention in Pyeongchang, most of it, at least, will focus on Vonn. She's already eyeing the long, sweeping turns and big jumps in the downhill course at Jeongseon Alpine Center.

"I feel like I'm coming into these Olympics on a hot streak," Vonn said. "Last weekend was really the icing on the cake, exactly what I needed to build my confidence and get ready."

(c)2018 Los Angeles Times

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