By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; D07
WHISTLER, B.C. -- Lindsey Vonn could have raced here in the giant slalom Wednesday, could have taken the lead with a smooth run over the top portion of the course, and then crashed -- breaking a finger -- and ski sages would have spoken about her talent, but acknowledged that her lack of training in her weakest event made a true medal pursuit unlikely.
Julia Mancuso could have raced here, too, and been charging down the course on pace with the leaders. She could have been stopped mid-run, however, because there was a crash ahead of her, and thus been forced to slide to the bottom of the mountain, take a snowmobile back to the top, and do it all over again.
The craziest part of a hectic Alpine ski competition here: All of that indeed happened Wednesday. But the dynamic it created could never have been conjured up in advance. Vonn's crash not only ended her hopes of a third medal, but it stopped Mancuso's run as well. With that, by complete coincidence, Vonn all but ended Mancuso's chances to repeat as Olympic champion in the giant slalom.
"I feel terrible for Julia," Vonn said. "It is absolutely not what I wanted."
"It's really a bummer when you come into the race that you've been waiting for your whole career," Mancuso said, "and something happens like that."
The logistics read like this: The first of two runs was completed, and Austria's Elisabeth Goergl posted the fastest time. The second run was postponed by snow and fog until Thursday, when the medal winners will finally be determined, weather permitting.
Yet the lack of medals sapped nothing from the day's events. The most important matter: Two of the most decorated and talented female skiers in American history -- rivals who have never been close -- had an unlikely on-course encounter that was nearly as dramatic as any of their medal-winning runs.
"Today is like the most bizarre day I've ever been to," said Mancuso's mother, Andrea.
Though Mancuso had already taken silver in both the downhill (in which Vonn won gold) and the super combined (in which Vonn crashed), Wednesday figured to be her best chance to shine by herself. Not only did she win gold at the 2006 Turin Olympics, but giant slalom is by far Vonn's worst discipline. She has never finished in the top three of a World Cup giant slalom, she failed to finish four of six GS races this season, and injuries had limited her training.
When Vonn got into the starting gate Wednesday, Goergl had just posted the fastest time, 1 minute 15.28 seconds. Vonn immediately started cutting into it. At the first checkpoint, she was .15 of a second ahead. At the next, she was .16. At the last one -- nearly a minute into the run -- her lead was .35 of a second.
"To put four tenths on this field . . . is amazing," said Thomas Vonn, Lindsey's husband, de facto coach and closest adviser. "She was in contention to win."
But as she approached the last crest on the course, she laid into her left ski hard. She hit a bump and was tossed upright. Her right hand fell hard into the snow. The ensuing crash became inevitable, and she was tossed into the protective fencing at the side of the course.
"I was like a pretzel in the nets," Vonn said.
By the time Vonn laid motionless in the snow -- she later had a non-displaced fracture in her right pinky diagnosed, and her status for Friday's slalom is in question -- Mancuso was already on the course, but barely. Because the snow was predicted to fall all day, officials from the International Ski Federation (FIS) decided to send racers off at shorter intervals than normal. In Mancuso's case, she went a minute behind Vonn -- too close for officials to hold her in the gate after Vonn's crash.
"The jury member needs one or two or three seconds to consider the situation before he calls the start/stop," said Atle Skardal, FIS's director of the women's competition. "At that time, Mancuso was already on her way."
Mancuso said she was finding the rhythm in her run. When a jury member on the left side of the course raised a yellow flag -- the signal meaning she had to stop -- she was stunned.
"It just doesn't seem right," Mancuso said. "This stuff doesn't happen -- ever. You never get flagged in a GS race. So the fact that I wasn't flagged earlier or they weren't able to get her out of the way in time, it's just a ridiculous situation."
The entire exchange brought to the forefront some tension between the two stars. They have raced against each other their whole lives, and they have been different their whole lives -- Mancuso the free spirit, Vonn single-minded.
"Our team is struggling, as a group," Mancuso told Sports Illustrated in an interview published online Wednesday. "People are having a hard time reaching their potential because it's such a struggle for attention. You come to meetings after races, and it's like it's a bad day if Lindsey didn't do well."
Mancuso declined to elaborate Wednesday. Vonn was asked about her reaction.
"It definitely has hurt me that she's said some negative things about me," Vonn said. "All I can do is continue to support her like I always have been, and hope that she reciprocates that, but I'm always proud that an American is doing well, and I was proud of her for being on the podium in downhill and super combined. It just bums me out."
Mancuso, clearly, was bummed after the first run, sobbing. She was also confused about the correct mode of transportation to get to the top. Riding a snowmobile, a course worker stopped her and said she would have to take a gondola.
"I kind of lost it," Mancuso said. The snowmobile driver charged ahead. She ended up starting 31st, but with the course softening -- and therefore slowing -- duplicating her first run was impossible.
"You're in your focus, you're in your zone, and then you're suddenly stopped and then you have to spend 15 minutes on your own, contemplating what happened and what you're going to do again," said Britain's Chemmy Alcott, one of Mancuso's closest friends. "It's really tough."
The result: She placed 18th, 1.3 seconds behind Goergl. Thursday, she will have a chance to make that up, though it is unlikely she can. Only then will the strangest Olympic event either of America's top two female racers have ever been involved in be over.
"Of course I wish I could have this morning happen over," Mancuso said. "That was probably the worst possible thing that could happen in the Olympics, to get flagged on the run of your defending gold-medal run. Like, that's not something anyone ever wants, and it's probably the most unexpected thing ever."