Lindsey Vonn finishes third in downhill, and it’s the end of the snow as we know it
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The morning of the last Olympic downhill in Lindsey Vonn’s career began the same way every other race morning has started this season, with a text message from her younger sister Karin with a clip from the movie “Miracle.”
“This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”
A little over six hours later, Vonn stood in the starting gate, looked to the mountain below and reminded herself to breathe. She took one deep breath. Then a second. A third. And a fourth. When she heard coach Eirik Hole encouraging her from below, she smiled and waved. And then she was gone.
She had waited eight years for this moment — 2,925 days to be precise. That’s when she won downhill gold during the 2010 Vancouver Games, announcing to the world her arrival as a ski racing force. Now she was 33, her body beaten and broken after a series of broken bones and damaged ligaments, including a pair of torn ACLs that kept her out of the Sochi Games.
Since those 2014 Winter Games, nearly every decision she had made pointed to this day. The 5 a.m. wake-up calls on Thanksgiving and Christmas to train. The brutal rehabilitation sessions when she had to relearn how to use her injured right hand and rebuild her right knee. She had dedicated Wednesday’s race to her Grandpa Don, the tough-as-nails laborer who died in November. And now, in a span of 99.69 seconds, it was over.
The end result would not be what Vonn had hoped, with her 1:39.69 time placing .47 seconds behind Italy’s Sofia Goggia and .38 seconds behind Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel. But in many ways, that bronze result revealed more about Vonn’s evolution as a ski racer and as a person than gold ever would have.
Yes, there were tears at the thought that she likely won’t be able to do this again. Vonn plans on racing in Thursday’s Alpine combined, but the downhill is the biggest and baddest of skiing events. And it was her baby; no one has ever won more World Cup downhills. But there also was laughter and smiles — and a sense of appreciation that surely wouldn’t have been there with a 25-year-old eight years earlier.
“I’m out here doing what I love to do,” Vonn said. “I just have a different understanding for life back then. I was younger. Now I’m 33. In ski racing age, I’m over the hill. But it’s the perspective that I think is important. I have a different perspective on everything than I did eight years ago.
“The last eight years have been full of ups and downs. A lot of downs. But it’s all made me who I am — a stronger person. It makes me appreciate every opportunity you have. I’m thankful to be here, on the podium, in most likely my last downhill race.”
On Wednesday, Vonn skied mistake-free. But perhaps it was too clean. In a race where Vonn promised her results would be to “win or crash,” her coach Chris Knight’s initial thought was that Vonn wasn’t aggressive enough.
“A little nervous, a little tentative at the start I think,” Knight said. “And then a couple of bobbles you don’t usually see from her. Then she realized she had to go and she did. But it was too late I think. It’s uncharacteristic for her, not charging.”
And Goggia didn’t leave much room for error. The No. 1-ranked downhill racer in the world this season, the 25-year-old Goggia found the perfect line between speed and disaster and mastered it down the 2,775-meter course. After Vonn crossed the finish line, she looked to the scoreboard, saw the 2 next to her name and smiled. She pointed at Goggia, who was watching nearby, and then looked to the heavens above — a tribute to her grandfather.
“I desperately wanted to win for him today,” she said. “And I didn’t do that. I won a bronze, and I think he would still be proud of me. That’s the other reason I’ve been crying all day. I just wish he was here and could have watched me.”
Vonn wishes it weren’t the end. If she had her way, she’d ski forever. But not a day goes by that her right knee doesn’t give her discomfort. An early-season crash in November at the Lake Louise course in Alberta has only sped up her skiing odometer. She knows there are only so many miles left. After Thursday’s Alpine combined, a race in which she would need to “pull a rabbit out of a hat” to medal, she said, Vonn will set her sights on her pursuit of Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 85 World Cup wins. She currently has 81.
“I wish I could keep going,” Vonn said. “I wish it wasn’t my last Olympics, but it is. I’m trying to accept that and enjoy the ride.”
Knight said before this season that Vonn was competing at “50 to 60 percent” of her physical ability. He too realizes this is likely the end.
“I’m pretty sure we would need some sort of medical miracles for her to ski again in four years,” Knight said.
But for now, Vonn becomes the oldest female Alpine skiing medalist in Olympics history and just the third American with three Olympic Alpine skiing medals.
When asked after the race to put Vonn’s career in perspective, Goggia had little trouble.
“It speaks for itself. She has 81 victories. I have four. Five with this,” Goggia said after her gold-medal performance in the downhill. “She is unbelievable. She is the most respectful skier I have ever met. Around every girl is like she is acting like it’s normal, she’s easy. She’s not looking at anyone from the Olympus where she can be idolized. She is the greatest. And she had a wonderful career and she is still having. It’s not over.
So for now, these Olympics are essentially the opening paragraph of the final chapter of the greatest female skiing career. And it hasn’t been easy. Beyond the mistake in last week’s super-G — in which she finished off the podium and tied for sixth — has been the blistering criticism Vonn has received on social media for saying back in November that she wouldn’t visit the White House after the Pyeongchang Games if she were invited. She added that she skis for her country, not the president. That has brought an avalanche of vitriol-laced social commentary, in which strangers have wished everything from crashes to paralysis to death on the skier. On Wednesday, knowing some will relish in her failure to win gold, she had a message for her haters.
“Take a walk in my shoes,” she said. “I will not be beaten. I stand strong. I am proud of what I represent and who I am. I’m proud to hold the American flag on the podium. All Americans deserve to hold the flag and be proud of their country, no matter what they believe. That’s what makes America great. I’m not beaten. I’m still standing on the podium. And to me, I feel like I won a gold medal.”