Kildow's outing means more than any medal

SAN SICARIO, Italy -- She tried to flee the hospital. On Valentine's Day morning, one day after rolling out of the trauma unit on a gurney, Lindsey Kildow got out of her bed, packed a bag, put on her clothes and made for the exit. She had to be restrained.

And if you need one image of these games, when you look back in 2016 or 2036, let it be that. Let it be the vision of this pretty blonde girl bolting for the door of a hospital after careening over a hill so fast that she sheared open her ski suit upon landing.

Or let it be the image of Kildow at the bottom of the downhill course Wednesday, hunched over, using her poles as crutches, holding back tears, smiling, and then walking gingerly off the mountain upright and without help.

Or let it be the sound of Kildow's voice as she said:

"Not racing wasn't an option. I was gonna go through everything I could today to start and I really wasn't thinking about not racing at all. I just learned that your body can go through a lot. And that you can push yourself as far as you want to push it."

Let these games belong to Kildow, and to 2002 gold-medalist Carole Carles-Montillet, who mangled her face so badly in a fall earlier this week that she had to ski Wednesday with her eyes taped open; and to the Chinese figure skater Zhang Dan, who got up from a horrendous fall Monday night, wobbled over to the dasherboards, then allowed her partner to throw her into the air once again.

We'll pass up any ticket to any hockey game in the coming days in favor of our chance to sit in the stands Wednesday with Thomas Vonn, Kildow's boyfriend and 2002 Olympic ski racer. He watched the biathlon in his Sestriere apartment two days ago, when suddenly his TV screen showed a group of medics surrounding a fallen skier. He thought, "Not Lindsey. Not Lindsey." Then, the screen showed a slo-mo replay of a familiar face glaring out of a tuck position, and then the ground gave way, and then Vonn's stomach gave way.

"I was horrified," Vonn said from the front row of the stands Wednesday. "That was a double-knee blowout, for sure. One knee for sure. Let's pray not two."

He rushed out of the apartment. He stopped. He rushed back in. Where was she? Which hospital? How do I get there?

The phone rang. It was Lindsey, crying.

Vonn tried to reassure her: "Don't worry. I'm coming down. You'll be OK." He hung up and thought, "I can't believe this happened."

Two-time Olympic medalist Picabo Street was already on her way. And if you thought Picabo was a hero before, well, that was nothing. Picabo was a "private nurse," a "best friend," and "extremely cool," said Vonn. She made Lindsey laugh and got her food and even instructed Vonn to wear a sanitary mask to keep his receding flu out of the hospital air. Oh, and she also told Kildow: "You can do this."

And when your childhood hero and mentor sits in your hospital bed with you and says you can, well …

Vonn clutched his cell phone all Wednesday morning, remembering that Lindsey would only call if she decided to pull out. He might as well have chucked the phone in the Po River.

He stretched out his legs in the stands and chomped furiously on a piece of gum and tried not to wince behind his sunglasses when early racers fell. She was up there. She was going to do this.

Vonn passed the time by telling the story of the past few days as the racers left the chute, then he shifted his glance up to the video screen as bib No. 31 got into the chute. "Do this!" he yelled.

Kildow took off. "Come on!" Vonn screamed. She negotiated the turns and Vonn held his breath. The splits came in -- she was behind pace, but fighting. Vonn got louder: "Come on! Adrenaline! Come on!" He pounded his knee.

She launched herself over the same jump that nearly crippled her, and landed sweetly. Vonn stared bullets at the scoreboard. He wanted more than just a finish, and he knew she did too.

She crossed. He clapped. There were no tears. "I'm happy she made it down," he said. He didn't look all that happy. Neither did she.

Then, he thought about it some more.

"I thought I'd be in the U.S. making surgery arrangements right now," Vonn said. "Incredible."

Kildow finished the race in 1:57:78. And no one cares, except for maybe Kildow herself. How many points did Willis Reed score in his epic playoff performance for the Knicks? Anyone remember?

So, she didn't have the perfect tuck. So, she looked tentative. So, she finished eighth. Whatever. Let the others in Torino win the medals, stand on the podium, get a spot next to Leno. Kildow gets much more, because she gave much more.

She gave to us.

We've all hurtled through life at full speed, then suddenly, we're upside down and we land hard and we feel deep pain and we don't know when we'll get back to the familiar places we blew past before.

But we can't look to the pro athlete much anymore for inspiration. The regular fan can't shell out $4 million for a shiny bauble when he lets down his spouse, or call a greasy agent to tell his boss "Next Question!" The regular fan can rely only on friends and family and himself.

The regular fan can only crawl out of bed and get back to work, fighting the arms that grab us and hold us back, ignoring all the reasons to crumble.

And for that, the regular fan has Lindsey Kildow, and the feeling of watching her do what we all imagine ourselves doing in such a moment of terror and agony.

"I am in awe of her," said her mom, Linda. And she started to well up, and she apologized, and she took no more questions, and she went quiet.

Enough said. We're in awe, too, of the speed and the precision and talent and grace. But more of the vision of her running for the door, dropping out of the chute, leaning on her makeshift crutches, hobbling away, planning her return.

"I wanted to do it even if I wasn't going to do well," Kildow said. "I just had to try. It's the Olympics. You work so hard to be here. You can't just give up."

ESPN.com contributor Carrie Sheinberg contributed to this story. Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.