By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010; D01
WHISTLER, B.C. -- The assumption for Lindsey Vonn is that if she delivers her best ski race, she will win. She is that talented, that confident in her abilities, and she has the evidence to back it up: 31 victories on the World Cup circuit, the gold medal in the women's downhill at these Vancouver Olympics.
The evidence suggests, too, that occasionally something less than Vonn's maximum performance is plenty. There comes, then, a tricky equation. Why subject yourself to a devastating error? Why not hold back?
"Sometimes it seems to me that she doesn't have to take full risk and [go] 100 percent," said her best friend and rival, Germany's Maria Riesch, "and still [she] can win."
The problem: Hold back at the Olympics, and the risk is losing a gold medal. So even after Vonn crossed the finish line in Saturday's super-G race and she celebrated after the scoreboard showed her in first, she knew she had left something on the mountain.
"I think," she said, "I got content."
Thus, the medal she now adds to her collection is bronze -- the seventh Alpine medal for the U.S. here, but not the gold she might have won. Andrea Fischbacher handily beat Vonn with a leave-it-all-out-there run that brought the first Alpine gold of these Olympics for skiing-obsessed Austria. Slovenia's Tina Maze won the silver with a race in which she, too, held nothing back, and Vonn was left toggling between satisfaction in the result and disappointment in her execution.
"I just got a little bit too comfortable with my skiing," Vonn said. "I wasn't pushing myself as hard as I could have, just wasn't clean enough on the skis, just wasn't letting it go as much as I know I can. I just got content, and that's why I'm not on the top step today."
The super-G -- skiing's second-longest, second-fastest discipline behind only downhill -- was contested under constantly changing conditions. American Julia Mancuso, who already has two silver medals here, was the first of 53 competitors to take to the 1.18-mile course, and she did so in almost complete shade. That contributed to one big error, and though her time held up for another 10 racers, she figured she would be easily overtaken.
"I really felt like there was a better run to be had," Mancuso said.
But a number of things started happening. First came the question of whether much of the field would even be able to complete the race. Five skiers before Vonn crashed or missed a gate, and by the end of the day, 15 racers failed to finish. Then, as the 10 a.m. start time fell further into the past, the sun began to peak over the trees, bathing the middle section of the course in light, softening that section.
All of this informed how Vonn would ski.
"The game plan was not [to ski at] 90 percent this morning," said Thomas Vonn, Lindsey's husband who serves as coach and chief strategist. "It was, 'You have to attack. You have to go.' And it kind of changed a little bit when we saw the carnage that was going on."
Just before Vonn skied, Austrian Elisabeth Goergl, the bronze medalist in the downhill, attacked the course the way Thomas Vonn envisioned for Lindsey. But by the time he radioed to her what Goergl had done, Lindsey was in the starting gate. By that point, over-analysis does no good.
"You can't be like, 'Okay, what do I do here?' " Thomas Vonn said. "You have to go with the information you've got."
So Vonn went. She skied aggressively and well over the top portion of the course, and took the best line through a sweeping right-hand turn midway down. But then she changed. In Thursday's super combined race, Vonn crashed out of the slalom portion because she said she was going for gold, that just any old medal wouldn't matter as much given that she had already won the downhill. Oddly, she didn't take the same approach in super-G, a discipline in which she had won the last three races on the World Cup circuit.
"Sometimes it's hard to keep pushing yourself, and you feel like you're in a good rhythm and sometimes it's hard to get out of that," Vonn said. "You have to push it past your comfort zone, and I just don't think I did that today."
That was particularly clear over the latter portion of the course. "I think that's where I lost the race," Vonn said. Indeed, her time between the second and third interval markers was just 10th-fastest in the field, her time from the third marker to the finish just seventh-fastest.
"In the Olympics, it's all about putting it all on the line -- period," U.S. women's coach Jim Tracy said. "And if you don't put it on the line, you're maybe not going to be as fast as you want to be."
Fischbacher, racing two skiers after Vonn, put it on the line.
"I'm always thinking, if I make a perfect run, I can do it," she said.
She had won only one super-G on the World Cup circuit -- Vonn has nine such wins -- but her race was aggressive from top to bottom. Her time of 1 minute 20.14 seconds beat Vonn by .74 of a second -- a trouncing -- and she slammed into the padding at the base of the course as she celebrated.
Vonn, then, was left to mull what she had done and what it meant. "I'm happy," she said. But Thomas Vonn thought she might need some convincing.
"If she's disappointed or if she's feeling like something didn't go the way she wanted, I'm like, 'At the beginning of these Games, if somebody told you you could have a gold medal, and that's it, would you take it, but that's all you get?' " Thomas Vonn said. "And she's like, 'Yes, absolutely.' I was like: 'Then you have to be happy. That's the deal.' And then now, add a bronze to it, it's even a bigger smile."
Now, though, Vonn's best events are past. She has her gold, and a bronze to go with it. But Saturday will always be a day when the best female skier in the world didn't allow herself to ski her best, and it cost her.