BUKPYEONG, South Korea — Getting to the Jeongseon Resort in South Korea, site of the 2018 Winter Olympic Alpine skiing events, isn’t easy. At a minimum, you’ve got to wind through dozens of miles of curling, narrow roads, through one-stop sign towns, past five-table restaurants and greenhouses and racks of fish drying in the sun. You ascend through the jagged, incisor-shaped hills until you reach the slope.
It’s a thin, steep stripe of snow that literally did not exist 25 months ago. Getting up to the finish zone of Jeongseon from the base of the mountain requires three separate staircases, two long walks along woven bamboo carpets, and one chairlift. The road narrows and narrows, until you’re literally walking across ice as you approach the finish line.
Getting up to the starting line at Jeongseon, though? That’s a journey that takes a lifetime. For Lindsey Vonn, it’s run from Minnesota to Colorado to podiums all over the world, with occasional detours through TV commercials, tabloids, and comment sections. For Mikaela Shiffrin, it ran from Colorado to Vermont to Sochi, stretching wide and fast as she approached PyeongChang.
And here they were, on a brilliant blue February morning, master and protégé, the 33-year-old legend and the 22-year-old upstart, both standing atop the downhill course at Jeongseon, both preparing to face down demons both internal and external.
These Olympics hadn’t gone how either one had predicted. Shiffrin had come in riding a wave of five-gold-medals talk, but a combination of bad weather and bad early results scuttled that idea in a hurry. Shiffrin won gold in the Giant Slalom, but placed a disappointing fourth the very next day in Slalom, the event she’d expected to own. She’d vomited right before that race, and even though she’s the finest slalom skier on the planet, her nerves overcame her and she couldn’t manage better.
Vonn, for her part, arrived in PyeongChang on the equivalent of a victory lap; she’s the most successful female skier of all time, with 81 World Cup victories, and ranks only five wins behind Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark for the overall mark. But her success on the world stage hadn’t translated to Olympic glory — she held only three medals coming into Thursday’s competition, a bronze won in Downhill the day before and a gold and bronze won in 2010 in Vancouver. (She missed the entirety of the 2014 Olympics due to injury.)
Vonn was also dealing with the repercussions of a December interview in which she criticized President Trump and indicated that, if she won gold, she wouldn’t visit the White House. Devotees of the president, with an elephant’s memory and also an elephant’s grasp of basic American freedom of expression, had been dogging Vonn ever since. And since trying to quiet online haters is like trying to stomp a mud puddle dry, Vonn had no choice but to suffer the blowback.
Two roads, same destination, same opportunity to write a brilliant final chapter to an otherwise rocky Olympics. All that stood before them was the careful-what-you-wish-for duo of Combined: one downhill segment, Vonn’s best event, and one slalom segment, Shiffrin’s best event.
Wearing bib No. 13, Vonn skied the downhill with a freedom she hadn’t shown the entire Olympics. As skiers pass designated marks, an onscreen box will grow green (ahead of the leader’s pace) or red (behind the pace). Vonn’s run was as green as a newly cut Christmas tree, and she finished the downhill segment in first place by three-quarters of a second — the equivalent of a 10-yard head start in a hundred-yard dash. She wasn’t guaranteed a medal, but she’d given herself the greatest possible chance.
Vonn conceded that she wasn’t quite prepared for the slalom — she said she’d only done three runs since Thanksgiving prior to Thursday’s competition — but she fell back on her own willpower: “I’m a pretty good competitor,” she smiled after the downhill run. “I’m going to give it hell, and maybe I can pull out a miracle.”
Shiffrin, on the other hand, skied with less precision, her jumps landing long and her skis chittering on Jeongseon’s hard snow. She finished the downhill portion in sixth place, 1.98 seconds behind Vonn — which, as it turned out, was the best possible outcome for her.
“I made a pretty big mistake at the top, trying to go a little more aggressive than in training,” she said a few minutes after her downhill run. But she shrugged off the relatively weak time. “It almost takes the pressure off. I can ski free, and see what happens.”
What happened was nothing short of magnificent. The world’s slalom master unleashed a race that bore about as much resemblance to last week’s debacle as Beyoncé to a Wednesday-night karaoke performance of “Single Ladies.” Shiffrin sliced the edges, punched the gates, rode the bumps and cut the ice, and in the end posted a time atop the leaderboard. Sweden’s Michele Gisin would better it, knocking Shiffrin down a step on the podium, but still — with only Vonn left to go, Shiffrin was guaranteed a medal.
And then — as if this entire story was being scripted for a yank-at-the-emotions Lifetime movie—the skies darkened, and the snow started to fall. The wind picked up, and visibility dropped. Vonn stood at the gate for what seemed like an absurdly long time, waiting for the signal to go as the PA system at the bottom of the slope broadcast a pounding heartbeat.
Then she was off, and it was clear from the start that she was, indeed, off. Vonn wasn’t skiing with the same aggressiveness she’d shown in the downhill, and just 12 gates in, her ski tip cut too far inside and she ran over the gate. Bang, race over, dream over, Olympics over. A silver medal for Shiffrin, another what-could-have-been for Vonn.
“To come away from this Olympics with two medals is insane, especially with the schedule changes at the front end and the combine being pushed forward,” Shiffrin said after her race. “It was like someone was playing a game of ping-pong in my brain.”
The road narrows and narrows, and sometimes it ends before you expect it.
So what’s next? Shiffrin can all but mark 2022 in Beijing on her calendar in Sharpie, and probably wherever the 2026 Games end up, too. She’s entering her peak years in a sport that has enough longevity to stretch over multiple Games. And — hey, this’ll make you feel old — she’ll only be one year older than Vonn is now when the 2030 Games roll around. She came into this Olympics expecting glory, pinwheeled toward the ground, but recovered in time to walk away with two medals. That’s the kind of experience that will serve her well for a decade.
“Knowing that I can put down fast times in every event is huge,” Shiffrin said. “To be in this position now is incredibly sweet. Moving forward, I know it’s going to get better.”
For Vonn, though, the future’s cloudier. She’s almost surely done with her Olympic career; she’ll be 37 when Beijing rolls around, and there’s no guarantee that even if she put her body through four years of rigorous training needed to prepare, that she’d make the team. She’s got plenty of skiing left in her, many opportunities to win those last six World Cup titles and claim the mantle of Greatest Ever.
But for much of America — the part that can look beyond blind, naïve partisanship, of course— Vonn’s judged on whether she’s an Olympic success. She’ll surely have broadcast and commercial opportunities going forward, yes, but will that be enough?
As Shiffrin began her post-race press conference in a media tent, one of the many obligations of a medal winner, Vonn stood with handlers in the finishing zone. The slopes above were all but picked clean; this was the last event of the Olympics for Jeongseon, and the slope’s dozens of volunteers were more than happy to take a group photo and pack up.
A group of Americans holding a 25-foot-high flagpole and a flag large enough to drape a pickup truck stood nearby, calling Vonn’s name and begging for a selfie.
“We’re late, we’re late,” one handler said, in a vintage annoyed handler’s tone. But Vonn caught the flag waving out of the corner of her eye. She walked over to the fans — “I’m from Denver!”, one crowed — and stared up at the enormous flag, then posed for selfies for anyone who wanted one. Vonn smiled for every photo, and the gratitude for her poured forth. It wasn’t a medal, but it was something.
Asked about Shiffrin’s future prospects, Vonn looked wistful. “I think she has potential to do a lot more of these games, but it’s like me — you can’t expect [her to win] everything all the time,” she said. “She should be skiing for ten years, win a lot more medals, a lot more World Cups. But as I saw in my career, things can change quite quickly. You never know what’s going to happen. You have to appreciate every moment that you have.”
One slope, two roads leading away. One’s clear and wide open, one’s hazy. And no choice for either woman but to move forward.
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