BUKPYEONG, South Korea — For one final time, Lindsey Vonn stared down the course for an Olympic downhill, the curves and bumps not unlike her own winding journey. For one final time, Vonn flew by the gates, one after another, reaching speeds reserved for highway driving as she navigated 1¾ miles of fast snow. And for perhaps one final time, Vonn earned a spot on the podium, an Olympic medalist once again.
Vonn’s bronze in the women’s downhill race Wednesday marks the third Olympic medal of her extraordinary Alpine career, and this one was essentially eight years in the making. She won gold in the event at the Vancouver Olympics, and injuries forced her to wait two Olympic cycles to finally defend her title. She was perhaps a bit disappointed she didn’t finish in first here but was certainly pleased to return to the podium.
“It’s tough to contemplate this being my last Olympic downhill,” she said. “I struggled to keep it all together, but I left it all on the mountain, like I said I would.”
“Lindsey is a great skier — the greatest skier — a great person and a great woman,” said Italy’s Sofia Goggia, the gold medal winner. “Everyone is, like, bowing to Lindsey. It’s always an honor to take part in the same race as her.”
Goggia entered Wednesday’s race ranked No. 1 in the World Cup downhill standings. She was the day’s fifth skier and tore through the course, especially picking up time over the back half. Goggia posted a time of 1:39.22, laying claim to the top of the leader board. Vonn was up two racers later and knew exactly what time she had to beat.
Vonn was fast out of the gate, briefly beating Goggia’s pace. But a couple of early turns swallowed that sliver of time, and Vonn couldn’t get it back. She finished in 1:39.69, which left her 0.47 seconds behind Goggia but, for the moment, comfortably in second.
“I thought I executed the line perfectly,” Vonn said later. “I thought I did great. And maybe I was just a little bit too clean, a little bit too precise with the line. Maybe I should’ve let the skis run a little bit more.”
Vonn had to then watch as the rest of the field tackled the fast course to see if her time would hold up. As the world’s top racers came and went, Vonn looked poised for silver until the day’s 19th racer hit the course.
Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel had never posted a podium finish on the World Cup circuit and finished 27th in the downhill four years ago at Sochi. But the 25-year-old racer seems to be enjoying the Korean snow and just six days earlier took silver in the women’s giant slalom. In Wednesday’s downhill, Mowinckel posted a time of 1:39.31, just 0.09 seconds out of first and 0.38 faster than Vonn.
Vonn’s race gives her three medals in four Olympic appearances. In addition to her downhill gold, she also won a bronze in the super-G at the Vancouver Games. They’re all different, but this latest one will surely carry plenty of meaning. Not only did Vonn have to navigate injuries and life changes that made her a different skier — and a different person — than the young hotshot racer who melted snow in Vancouver eight years ago, but she approached these Olympics knowing they’d surely be her last.
“The last eight years have been full of ups and downs,” she said, “a lot of downs, I’d say, especially from 2013 until now. But it’s all made me who I am. It’s made me a stronger person. And it also makes you appreciate every opportunity that you have.”
She had dedicated the PyeongChang Games to her grandfather, Don Kildow, who died in November at the age of 88 — which only added to the emotions she carried with each trip down the hill. “I wanted desperately to win for him today,” she said. Vonn blew him a kiss after crossing the finish line and will now take home a new medal in his honor.
“I just wish he was here, and I wish he could’ve watched me,” she said. “But I think he still is. To have my family here as well, we’re all very emotional.”
While Vonn entered the race as a strong podium candidate, she was not necessarily the race’s overwhelming favorite, which is still an unusual feeling. For a stretch of eight years — 2008 to 2016 — she won eight World Cup downhill titles, only missing in 2014 because of the knee injury that kept her from competing at the Sochi Olympics.
Vonn raced in seven World Cup downhill events this season, slowly finding her rhythm. She crashed in her first race of the season and then posted finishes of 12th and 27th. But in the weeks leading into the Olympics, she posted four straight downhill podiums and won the final three downhill races. She entered Saturday’s event ranked No. 2 in the World Cup standings.
The downhill is typically one of the premier events on the Olympic slate, and this year’s was shaping up to be especially memorable, pitting Vonn, one of the most decorated female ski racers ever, against Mikaela Shiffrin, the face and future of women’s Alpine skiing. The showdown didn’t materialize and the race lost just a bit of luster when Shiffrin decided earlier in the week to skip the event, even though she’s No. 5 the World Cup downhill standings.
Shiffrin, who won gold in the giant slalom last week, felt she had a better chance to medal in the combined event and wanted to focus her week on those preparations. The combined, which includes a downhill run and a slalom run, is scheduled to take place Thursday morning in PyeongChang, and both Shiffrin and Vonn will compete there in what will probably be the final Olympic event for one of the best female racers to ever step into a pair of skis.
“I wish I could keep going,” Vonn said. “I wish this wasn’t my last Olympics, but it is. So I’m trying to accept that and deal with the emotions of that and enjoy the ride.”
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