Alpine skiing

Lindsey Vonn ends her Olympics without a medal in slalom

Enjoy an up close and personal look at the action in Canada.
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010

WHISTLER, B.C. -- When Lindsey Vonn came out of one turn too late and couldn't recover in time to steer clear of the next gate, her Olympics ended. She entered the slalom Friday morning hopeful for a medal. Mentally, she was spent. Physically, she was beaten up. If her championship performance in last week's downhill was predictable -- because she is, without argument, the best female downhill skier in the world -- then so, too, was this. A straddled gate, a shrug of the shoulders, and a shush down the mountain at a casual, care-free, I'm-finally-done pace.

"At this point," she said, "I'm kind of happy that the Olympics are over."

The totals: One gold in the downhill, one bronze in the super-G, three events which she could not finish, one broken pinkie that required a brace, one bruised shin that drew international attention, countless tears after the gold, and an interminable amount of time answering questions about each and every one of those elements. The reaction, on Friday: joy. Exhaustion, sure, but joy that overrode anything else.

"I'm definitely really happy with everything I've done here," Vonn said. "I got the gold medal that I came here for. I got a bronze medal in the super-G. I know I could have done better in some of the disciplines . . . but I am totally satisfied with everything that I've done here in Vancouver."

And thus, on her final day of competition, she reeled back in the expectations she dealt with before the Games. Though she has won two World Cup slalom races in her career, both came more than a year ago, and she had struggled this season, failing to finish four times. Throw in injuries to her wrist and shin, and her training was limited. With heavy snow falling throughout the race, it was unlikely she would be able to keep up with her best friend, Germany's Maria Riesch, who won her second gold of these Olympics in her best discipline, collapsing to the snow afterward, pointing her ski poles to the sky.

"Of course, her confidence in slalom was not so good, because she didn't finish many runs," Riesch said. "So I'm really sorry for her, but she did great [at the] Games here. She killed the downhill, and she also did a good super-G, so I hope that she can go home happy."

That, Vonn said, was not a worry. Coming into these Games, no American athlete was the focus of more attention than Vonn. NBC featured her heavily in pre-Olympics ads. She posed for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue. She had won the previous two World Cup overall championships, led the current standings, and seemed worthy of it all.

"She really came in here with some incredible results," said Julia Mancuso, Vonn's contemporary and rival who also won two medals, both silver, here.

So the discussion started: Could she win five medals? Could they -- gulp -- all be gold? Never mind that she had never reached a World Cup podium in giant slalom. Her talent and focus made it all seem possible, and so she rolled with it. Though the record will never show it, she could have easily won a medal in the super combined; she was on pace before she hooked a gate in the slalom portion and fell to the snow. Even in the giant slalom, she was tearing down a course on which she had no business leading, and yet at the moment she crashed, she held the lead.

"Five gold medals was never my goal," Vonn said. "Of course I wanted to try. And looking back, four medals were very realistic. But nothing goes the way you want it to. Nothing's ever perfect."

Least of which the conditions on Friday. As Riesch said, elite skiers spend an entire World Cup season hoping for perfect, icy, smooth conditions. Yet for the slalom, huge flakes fell constantly, making for a soft track that could easily develop ruts, plenty to throw skiers off. Vonn was just one of the top competitors to struggle. Sweden's Anja Paerson, the 2006 gold medalist in slalom, skied off the course in the second run. Riesch's little sister Susanne, fourth after the first run, did the same.

Maria Riesch, though, did not. Her second gold of these Games made her, arguably, the women's Alpine star here. It is Riesch, too, that Vonn must hold off for the World Cup overall championship. But when Riesch came through the finish, the gold in hand over Austria's Marlies Schild and the Czech Republic's Sarka Zahrobska, she had someone with whom to celebrate. Vonn -- some three hours after she had finished her Olympics -- greeted her friend with a hug.

"I thought maybe, because she has a broken finger, she's probably in the lodge or wherever, not standing outside here in the snow," Riesch said. "And she was really nice to me. She said she's proud of me."

It was easier to be gracious given that Vonn had her gold, won nine days earlier. It was, she said, her signature moment, the one she wished had lasted longer.

"It's like your whole life, you've waited for this," said Vonn's mother, Linda Krohn. "You could just see the emotion in her face. I've never seen her cry. So it's just a wonderful release, that you know how hard she's worked for it, and she did it. There can't be anything better than that."

When Vonn finally finished her duties with the media, she found her mother, leaning against a fence. The two embraced for a good long while. There was so much behind her, but more ahead. She will be on "The Tonight Show" for Jay Leno's return Monday. She will then fly back to Europe to complete the World Cup season. And given her physical condition -- she's "just trying to put the duct tape around all my body parts and stay together," she said -- she will eventually head for a good, long vacation.

Friday, after she stepped away from her mother's hug, Vonn took a black Sharpie from a fan. With her right hand something of a claw because of the brace, she scratched out a few more autographs. And as some stray fans yelled after her -- "Lindsey, I love you!" -- the pre-Games It Girl skied alone down a road, the Olympics, and all they entail, finally behind her.

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