WINTER PARK, Colo. (AP) – Lindsey Vonn leisurely glided down the outer edge of the sun-toasted course rather than through the gates.

And the clock which had been tracking her progress had long since stopped – a big “did not finish” appearing in its place on the scoreboard.

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The Olympic gold medalist missed a gate early in her run at the U.S. championships on Saturday as her aching knees were unable to withstand the bumps on the rutted hill.

She’s been in persistent pain this season, something she’s kept hidden but was so aggravating that she’s scheduled to undergo an MRI exam on Monday.

That ache she could conceal. The one in her heart, well, it was on display for the world to see.

Back in November, Vonn kicked off the World Cup circuit on rough footing after separating from Thomas Vonn, her husband of four years.

“My world, to some extent, felt like it was crashing down around me,” Vonn said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to stay focused and ski fast.”

Oh, but she did.

For Vonn, the slopes have always been her sanctuary, the place where nothing bothers or distracts her. She can tune everything out and concentrate on the thing she does so well – ski fast. Vonn recaptured the overall title by amassing 1,980 points, the best season ever by a female skier.

Along the way, she also repaired the relationship with her father, Alan Kildow, and re-established bonds with teammates such as Julia Mancuso.

She found what’s been missing for quite some time – inner peace.

“I was skiing for me,” said Vonn, who will compete next season again as Vonn, instead of returning to her maiden name of Kildow. “This was the first season I really realized that I’m the one in the starting gate and I’m the one that’s actually racing. That gave me a lot of confidence.”

Her father noticed the difference, too.

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From thousands of miles away in Minnesota, Kildow watched his daughter charge down the slopes in Europe with a sense of purpose. She had a go-for-broke attitude, an unwillingness to settle for anything less than first.

Before, maybe Vonn would be content with a podium finish. Not anymore. Now, it’s pedal to the floor at all times.

“The joy of skiing – that’s what we saw this year,” her father told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “The joy of skiing again. That’s great to see.”

Kildow introduced his daughter to skiing and even moved the family to Colorado to develop that skill.

But they had a falling out a few years ago, the tension stemming in part from Vonn’s relationship with Thomas Vonn, a former U.S. Olympic skier who is nearly nine years older.

That’s in the past. The father and daughter are focused on reconnecting.

Kildow ventured out to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in February and had a front-row seat as Vonn captured her 50th race.

Very few skiers have reached such a distinguished milestone. Among the women, only Annemarie Moser-Proell of Austria (62) and Vreni Schneider of Switzerland (55) are ahead of Vonn. On the men’s said, just three men have 50 or more: Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden (86), Hermann Maier of Austria (54) and Alberto Tomba of Italy (50).

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“Just a thrill to be there and see her do so well,” Kildow said.

To celebrate, the family all went out for a big dinner. That meant a lot to Kildow, who’s grateful for another chance to be a figure in her life.

His role now is simple: He won’t try to coach or dispense advice, just be a proud parent.

“My job is to stand on the side on the hill, clap my hands and be supportive,” Kildow said. “And that’s what I’m going to do, as I’ve always done. I’m just a little closer now than in the past few years.”

Kildow knew his daughter was capable of this type of season, where she flirted with Maier’s record mark of 2,000 points.

Well, maybe not exactly like this, but a memorable season with everything coming together.

She even predicted it – in a way.

When Vonn was in third grade, she wrote an essay in which she proclaimed she was going to be an elite skier and win more Olympic gold medals than anybody else.

“She didn’t say more World Cup races, because she didn’t know about that,” Kildow said. “She’s a goal-oriented individual. She always has been. It’s great to see her performing like this.”

As for a possible name change for next season, Vonn quashed that notion, electing to stick with Vonn. It just felt right.

“Vonn is who I am. I’ve had the name for a while now,” she said. “It’s just a feeling I have. I think it would be weird for me to change it back. I’m a different person now than I was then. It’s just a part of who I am now.”

By any name, Vonn has been hard to beat.

She won an American record fourth World Cup crown this season, wrestling the title away from friend and chief rival Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany.

Even more, she placed second in the giant slalom standings, the best finish of her career and the event she’s been working hard to improve.

“In general, Lindsey has always been amazing,” Mancuso said. “But to pick it up in the GS, that was really impressive.”

As longtime adversaries, Mancuso and Vonn have always maintained a very competitive relationship. This season, it changed as Mancuso provided a shoulder for Vonn when she went through the separation from her husband.

“Jules and I are getting along really well – the other girls on the team as well,” Vonn said. “They’re cheering for me in the finish and I’m cheering for them. It’s never really happened that way for me.

“I feel like this is a new start. I feel like I have the same enthusiasm now as I did when I was a young kid. I’ve found a lot of peace on the slopes and I’ve really enjoyed it.”

– By Pat Graham, AP Sports Writer

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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