Fans of ski racer Kaylin Richardson likely know this story, but on the eve of the 2010 Winter Games, it's worth repeating.

Competing in her first Olympics in Italy four years ago, the Edina woman came through the corral in 17th place. Her joyful demeanor flummoxed journalists, who wondered whether she might be unaware of her standing.

"You're missing the point," she told them. "This is the Olympics!" She reiterated much the same sentiment to a few coaches who hinted that Richardson wasn't taking the games seriously. "I was focused, and I skied as fast as I possibly could," she said. "It didn't go as well as possible, but it would be a travesty to not savor it a little."

It's a safe bet Richardson, 25, will be savoring plenty in Vancouver, too, where the U.S. ski team member has been training since leaving the Twin Cities on Tuesday. Twenty family members and friends will travel to watch her compete Sunday in the super combined and, possibly, slalom events on Feb. 26.

This isn't to say that Richardson doesn't like to win. She's a fierce competitor with two top-25 finishes in the World Cup this season, and four national titles. She's even beat fellow Twin Cities ski racing phenom Lindsey Vonn, whose recent bikini shots are infusing the Winter Games with a special heat of their own.

Richardson, who calls Vonn "an amazing competitor," wouldn't mind shaking things up in her own way. "The cool thing about the Olympics is that it's anybody's game," she said last week over a plate of spicy huevos rancheros (unaware of just how prescient the comment was; Vonn said Wednesday that a bruised shin might hamper her).

"I'm capable of doing great things, but I'm under the radar," Richardson said. "I'm going to try to go as fast as I can and we'll see. Sometimes it's good to be the underdog."

Richardson was on skis at 5, along with her older brothers, Chris and Tom, for what their parents, Linda and Steve, thought would be "a relatively inexpensive sport the kids could pursue on weekends." At 9, she skied in Vail where, after a few hours in a ski school with Goofy, she'd had it with kid stuff and was skiing alongside Mom and Dad.

"Our dad said, 'You know, you don't have to ski with us,'" said Chris, laughing at the memory. "Then, whoa! I looked behind me. When did she get here? She's been skiing with us since."

Gracious winner, loser

As Vonn trained at Buck Hill, quickly becoming a grade-school sensation, 9-year-old Richardson joined Hyland Hill's Team Gilboa. Vonn was the "prodigy," Richardson said. "I was always slow-and-steady-wins-the-race. Lindsey was focused. I was silly, carefree."

But the 5-foot-10 Richardson had a competitive streak even then. "It was about, 'Who's fastest?' That worked for me," she said.

Gilboa co-founder Niel Atkinson remembers the youngster as passionate and hard-working, with an "unwavering" attitude. "It wasn't an I've-got-to-win attitude," Atkinson said. "It was, "This is what I enjoy doing.' She was innately well-balanced, a gracious winner and a gracious loser."

Yet, when Richardson was 13, Atkinson was asked whether he thought she'd be a World Cup contender. "It was a loaded question and, inside, I was thinking, 'probably not.' She was a stringy young kid." Two years later, he was delighted when the tables turned. She grew muscular and confident. At the end of her freshman year at Edina High School, Richardson was picked for the National Development Team.

"They saw a lot of promise," Richardson said with a smile, "since I come from a place with no mountains." She remained on the team for three years, missing about 100 days of school annually. Summers were spent training in Utah. During her senior year, she traveled overseas nearly 20 times, still managing to graduate on time with honors. And make it to Homecoming.

"It's embarrassing to admit this, but I got voted onto the Homecoming Court while I was at an Austrian training camp. I told my coach and he said, 'That's great!' Then I told him I wanted to go home. He said 'WHAT?' I told him I wanted this high school experience."

Her parents flew her home for four days, then back to Austria where she skied well.

After graduating, she was accepted to Dartmouth College, but she deferred three times. No regrets. And no definite plans for the future, although she's considering humanitarian work or broadcast journalism. She got a taste of TV when chosen to model the U.S. ski team's Polo/Ralph Lauren opening ceremonies uniforms on the "Today" Show last week. Just one bummer: No Tina Fey sighting.

"Skiing is a pretty self-absorbed existence. I've always struggled with that," she said. "What am I contributing? In the scheme of things, who's going to remember a ski race?"

This week? Everybody. This is the Olympics!

As always, Richardson will begin her race by granting herself a "little moment of silence" to gaze out at the spectacular landscape and soak it all in, "almost like a moment of thanksgiving." Then, back to reality.

"I'm going upwards of 80 mph," Richardson said. "Your body needs to focus on that."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 •