PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – The last time Lindsey Vonn stood atop a mountain for an Olympic downhill ski race, she was 25, still married and in possession of a right knee that did not have the consistency and structural integrity of mashed potatoes. That was nearly 3,000 days ago.
On Wednesday, as the Jeongseon Alpine Centre hosted the PyeongChang Games’ version of the event that made Vonn famous, she was 33, hearing catcalls from the stands – “Lindsey,” one man pleaded, “can I get your number?” – and owner of the peeled-spud knee. And each of those things matters, because Vonn’s voyage to return to the top of alpine skiing’s most dangerous discipline, stare it down and throw a big ol’ bird at it took some growing up, some self-examination and some fortitude she didn’t know she had.
The day did not end in fairytale, and it did not disperse heartbreak, either. It was a perfectly good day for the best ski racer in American history, the best female the world has seen, and perfectly good days are worthy of celebration. Particularly when the bronze medal Vonn won in the downhill came in her final Olympic race of the discipline she has owned for a decade.
Sorry. Pull back for a moment. In what is probably her final Olympic downhill race. If Vonn can become the oldest woman to medal in alpine, as she did Wednesday, the notion of counting her out for the Beijing Games seems just a tad premature, even if the tears that streamed from her eyes nearly every time she declared it decidedly looked like those of someone who knows her place in the universe.
“I’m gonna miss the Olympics,” Vonn said. “That’s one of the reasons why it was so emotional for me today. I love racing in the Olympics. I love racing. I love being in the starting gate with so much pressure you feel suffocated, but somehow you will yourself to give everything you have and you throw yourself down a mountain in hopes of a medal. I’m absolutely going to miss it. I wish I could keep skiing. I wish my body didn’t hurt as bad as it does.”
Every athlete’s body eventually enters the stage of betrayal, and alpine skiers meet such fates earlier than most. Downhill specialists like Vonn carve through mountains at 80 mph. Their crashes – and all of them crash – leave them laid up in the hospital. That takes a toll, and it made Vonn’s comeback from a pair of torn ACLs in her right knee that much more impressive.
The bronze was a circular piece of precious-metal validation for the rehab, the heartache from the end of her marriage and subsequent breakup with Tiger Woods, the loss of her grandfather, the endeavor to sneak in one final bow before nature feasts on Vonn’s career. Two thousand nine hundred twenty-seven days passed between the Vancouver downhill, where she won gold, and that of PyeongChang, and she wanted each of those 70,248 hours and 4,214,880 minutes and 2,552,892,000 seconds to have built toward the 1-minute, 39.69-second run.
It wasn’t perfect. She bobbled where she shouldn’t have midway through the course. She could’ve shaved time – maybe not enough to beat gold medalist Sofia Goggia or Ragnhild Mowinckel, who won silver, but closer to the half-second-or-so margin by which she trailed them. Her Super-G flub, nearly skidding off the course, was far more egregious.
This was a racer with 81 World Cup wins, the most ever by a female, simply getting beaten. And that happens. Vonn is not invincible in the downhill. She hasn’t been for some time. Her training changed to account for life’s inevitable tax. “Every single thing she’s done every day for the last eight years,” Vonn’s sister Karin Kildow said, “has been for this day and that two minutes.”
Over the last two months, it grew into more than that. Vonn’s dismissive comments of President Trump turned her into a constant target of social-media nastiness. Trolls cheered her bronze , as if under some trance designed to teach that standing atop an Olympic podium is a sub-optimal outline. Either that or the bots are getting much smarter.
The unexpected outcome is a referendum on patriotism and what it means today to root for American athletes, which is absurd, of course, because it feels like a point beyond debate. The loss of decorum, the nastiness, the hatred – it’s 2018, so of course it’s par for the course, but the constant anti-Vonn refrain has only steeled her as she tries to reach Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86 World Cup wins before contemplating the future.
“I will not be beaten,” Vonn said. “I stand strong and I’m proud of what I represent and who I am, and I’m very proud to hold the American flag on the podium. All Americans deserve to hold the flag and to be proud of their country, no matter what their beliefs because that’s what makes America great.”
Not again. Just great, as it is, even with a fake-news website talking about how Vonn keeps her “terrified” dog stuck in a hotel all day. The saps who buy that nonsense weren’t at Jeongseon on Wednesday, posing for selfies and appreciating Vonn’s presence before it disappears into the ether.
She’ll run the downhill on Thursday, too, though it’s combined with a slalom race, which for Vonn feels like trying to lube the mashed-potato knee with gravy. And that may well be it for Linsdsey Vonn, Olympian, one of the greatest the United States produced in the winter, as she hands off the program to the next wunderkind, two-time gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin.
Vonn will have this day, which included her whole family, even her dad from whom she was estranged for years. She will have the 2,926 days that preceded it and made it happen. And she will have a medal – not gold, not silver, still a medal – to forever remind her that whenever her knee locks up, whenever her back stiffens, she won it for the United States.
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