Lindsey Vonn remembers being a 9-year-old wannabe Olympian, waiting in line for hours on end to shake the hand of a medal-winning skier and get an autograph.
These days, Vonn is the one speeding to victories and hoping to inspire the next generation to hit the slopes.
Gold and bronze medals at the Vancouver Games, plus a third consecutive World Cup overall title, helped Vonn become the 2010 Female Athlete of the Year, chosen by members of The Associated Press. She is the first skier — male or female — to win one of the annual AP awards, which began in 1931.
Vonn received 77 of 175 votes submitted by news organizations that make up the AP’s membership, more than double what anyone else got in the tally announced Saturday.
“For sure, 2010 was the best year I’ve ever had,” the 26-year-old Vonn said in a telephone interview from France, where she won a World Cup downhill race Saturday. “It couldn’t have gone any better for me. Even if I just won the Olympic gold medal, that would have made it the best year of my career and the best day of my life, period. Winning the World Cup races and the overall title just topped it off.”
Zenyatta’s 32 votes placed the racehorse No. 2 in the AP balloting for the second consecutive year. The 6-year-old mare retired with a 19-1 career record and a North American earnings record for female horses. Her only loss was a narrow one in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Connecticut basketball player Maya Moore finished third with 29 votes, followed by tennis star Serena Williams with 14. No one else got more than five votes.
Moore led UConn to its second straight unbeaten season and NCAA championship in April. With a victory Sunday against Ohio State, the Huskies can match the Division I record 88-game winning streak set by John Wooden’s UCLA men’s team in 1974.
Williams — the 2002 and 2009 Female Athlete of the Year — was limited to six tournaments this year because of injuries, but she still won two Grand Slam titles.
Vonn’s accomplishments were many:
—the first U.S. woman to win a gold medal in the Olympic downhill.
—a bronze medal in the Olympic super-G.
—the first woman with three overall World Cup titles in a row since Petra Kronberger of Austria in 1990-92.
—11 World Cup race victories in the 2009-10 season, breaking her own American record of nine.
—her downhill, super-G and super-combined titles made her the first American to win three World Cup disciplines in a single season.
—her 35 career World Cup wins are more than any Alpine skier from the United States.
“Her dominance is very impressive. It’s really a testament to her work ethic,” said U.S. Olympic teammate Ted Ligety, an Alpine gold medalist at the 2006 Turin Games. “I can’t really name anybody that works harder than she does.”
Vonn needed all of that preparation to succeed at the Vancouver Olympics, where she showed up as the center of attention — and with a banged-up right shin that made walking difficult. She wondered whether she’d be able to compete at all.
But after getting some extra time to rest because of weather delays, Vonn won the opening women’s race, the downhill, and combined with Julia Mancuso to give the United States its first 1-2 finish in an Olympic Alpine event since 1984.
“I don’t think it could have been a better moment. I dreamed about it a million times, but it was so much more emotional for me and for my family that I ever thought it would be. I was just crying the entire time,” Vonn said. “When I say that it means everything to me, it really does. The Olympics are what I work for. They’re why I spend so much time in the gym. It’s why my family moved (from Minnesota to Colorado) for me to ski race, so I could pursue my dream of being Olympic champion.”
Being the first skier honored by AP members holds some significance for Vonn, who makes clear that she wants to boost her sport’s profile.
“Ski racing is an amazing sport, and if more people knew about it, we would have more people following it and more people doing it; not just ski racing, but skiing in general,” she said. “I do think it’s a part of my job as an athlete in the sport to try to promote ski racing as much as possible.”
Which is why she makes meet-and-greet appearances at places such as Pierce Skate & Ski in Bloomington, Minn., the shop where she saw two-time Olympic medalist Picabo Street more than 15 years ago.
“Her poster,” Vonn said with a chuckle, “is still at my mom’s house.”