WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Lindsey Vonn lived up to expectations and won the Olympic downhill Wednesday, ahead of childhood rival and American teammate Julia Mancuso.
In a race characterized by several crashes - including one to Swedish standout Anja Paerson and another to late starter Edith Miklos of Romania, who was airlifted for treatment - Vonn's bruised right shin proved not to be a hindrance as she sped down Franz's Downhill course in 1 minute, 44.19 seconds.
"I can't stop crying," Vonn said. "This is everything that I ever wanted and hoped for. I had a lot of ups and downs in my career. Standing here today at the finish and to win, is amazing."
Mancuso finished 0.56 seconds behind for silver, and Elisabeth Goergl of Austria took the bronze medal, 1.46 seconds back.
Maria Riesch of Germany, Vonn's main rival and best friend, finished eighth. Andrea Fischbacher of Austria placed fourth, Fabienne Suter of Switzerland came fifth and Whistler local Britt Janyk of Canada finished sixth.
It's the third time two Americans have finished 1-2 in an Olympic Alpine race, and the first time in 26 years.
At the 1984 Sarajevo Games, brothers Phil and Steve Mahre took gold and silver in the slalom and Debbie Armstrong and Christin Cooper accomplished the feat in giant slalom.
No American woman had won the Olympic downhill before. Hilary Lindh and Picabo Street both took silver - in 1992 and 1994, respectively.
Vonn was hurt on Feb. 2 during pre-Olympic practice in Austria and had hardly skied over the past two weeks.
Still, as the two-time defending overall World Cup champion and the winner of five of the six downhills this season, she entered as an overwhelming favorite.
"It's tough whenever you have an injury. You have to stay on top and do whatever you can to fight back," Vonn said. "I hurt my wrist in December and that set me back, and the shin injury is so annoying. It's so painful to ski, especially on this course because it's so bumpy.
"I was really lucky with the weather and the postponements. I needed those days off."
Mancuso won the giant slalom at the 2006 Turin Games but hadn't finished on the podium since the Olympic test downhill in Whistler two years ago. The Californian has won only two World Cup downhills in her career, the last nearly three years ago.
"Coming off a back injury last year, I was in a lot of rehab. I knew that I just had to hang on and keep going for it," Mancuso said. "It's really been a tough, long road. I'm happy to be in a position where I feel healthy."
Mancuso was an early starter and still led when Vonn skied.
Waiting in the starting gate with the sun reflecting orange off her goggles as she stared down the course, Vonn was a study in mental focus. Kicking out of the start without regard to her bruised shin, she increased her lead at the first three checkpoints, kicking up a trail of snow in her wake as if she were a race car, tucking at every opportunity.
Just when it seemed Vonn might go wide, she applied even more leg pressure, shifted her weight and maintained her line.
It wasn't all perfect, however, and Vonn lost nearly two tenths on the bottom, almost getting knocked off balance as she went over a small bump just before the finish.
It was more than enough for gold, however, and Vonn collapsed on her back in joy in the finish area. She then raised herself and placed both arms in the air in triumph.
"It was not the perfect run by any means," Vonn said, crying. "But I attacked and made it down. It's awesome."
A few moments later, Vonn's smile turned to a frown, as she watched with concern as Paerson lost control off the final jump, getting a huge amount of air and sliding through the finish headfirst.
Paerson bruised her left calf and was shaken up, but otherwise appeared OK, Sweden team official Ulf Lars Emilsson said.
Riesch skied immediately after Paerson and may have been affected psychologically by the Swede's crash. The French skier who started before Paerson, Marion Rolland, fell before she even got to the first gate.
"(Rolland) got brought up and got treatment right next to the start," Riesch said. "It was not perfect for me."
Due to the extended run of bad weather in Whistler over the past week, only one official downhill training session was held before the race.
All the fresh snow prevented organizers from creating a perfectly smooth surface. Even with sunny weather on race day, the course appeared extremely bumpy from top to bottom, creating a serious fitness test for skiers' legs - resulting in several crashes.
"It was a little bit ragged the whole way," said Vonn, who will again be the favorite for Thursday's rescheduled super-combined race.
The difficulties were evident from the start as the first skier on course, Klara Krizova of the Czech Republic, fell midway down and got spun around as she slid into a gate at high speed. Her skis remained attached, though, and she was able to get back up and complete her run.
Several other early starters collapsed in exhaustion upon crossing the finish line and Dominique Gisin of Switzerland also crashed while landing the final jump. She slid downhill, then was launched back into the air when she hit a bump on the side of the course and landed hard on her back. She sat right up, though, and eventually walked away under her own power.
The next skier, Daniela Merighetti of Italy, fell right before the final jump and went head first through a gate, losing both of her skis. She ended up sliding downhill on her backside, waving to show she was OK.
Marion Rolland of France fell before she even got to the first gate.