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WHISTLER, British Columbia – Give Lindsey Vonn credit. She'll always be a perennial gold medalist in poise and public relations.
When Saturday afternoon had come and gone, the U.S. Ski Team's dominant talent had coasted into a bronze medal in the super-G, and she pressed forward behind a masterful façade. She gave some lighthearted shrugs, allowing just a hint of "gosh darn it" curvature in the corners of her smile. In one breath, she was brutally honest, admitting that she got complacent and tried to win a race without fully pushing herself, likely costing herself a second gold medal in these Vancouver Games. Then she wrapped her logic around the thorns of consolation, insisting a bronze medal is still great, and that "it almost looks like gold."
But Lindsey Vonn was hurt. Anything else you saw on Saturday was for sound bites and sportsmanship. The best super-G racer in the world let a gold medal slip off her neck. And she knows it.
Vonn wanted her second gold of the Olympics in this race. She wouldn't say it coming in, because it would have only fed out-of-control expectations. And she won't say it coming out, because it would only take the shine off an admirable accomplishment. But Vonn has spent the last few years owning Alpine speed events. Not to seize the top of an Olympic podium in those events is nothing less than a lost opportunity – particularly when she likely has only one more Winter Games left in her body.
And while she'll continue to sermonize about how special any Olympic medal is, the truth is that she betrayed that whole campaign after her first race in Vancouver. She let it slip after capturing gold in the downhill, admitting the top of the podium was exactly what she wanted. And she displayed it again in the super-combined, when she chose to forgo an easy silver or bronze, charging for gold in the slalom portion and then falling. So don't buy the notion that she's content to be a "two-time Olympic medalist." She's better than that title, and she knows it.
And that's what makes Saturday's bronze so befuddling. For the first time in an Olympic event, Vonn's own decision-making became a bigger deterrent than any bump on a course. In one super-G run, she displayed the best and worst of her own success. She came out charging at the top of the course, recording the second-fastest split of any skier, but then throttled down and fell off precipitously. Her second split was 10th best, and her final split was seventh – numbers that rarely win you a race.
Conversely, Fischbacher sustained her blazing start, ranking first, first and fourth in her splits. She looked like she had been shot down the hill by a giant rubber band, leaving only a puff of dust in her wake. Some might argue she had a sunnier course or better starting position, but nobody can say she had less pressure than Vonn – not with the entire Austrian ski team getting raked in their homeland as a monumental disappointment in these Games.
The truth was that Fischbacher had nothing to lose, and no reason to pull back. And Vonn had a sense of contentment. Instead of skiing fast and loose with her first gold in her pocket – toeing the line of out-of-control, as Picabo Street always preached – that gold became a bit of an albatross. So when Vonn saw a course that had multiple crashes, she started fast and then mistakenly assumed she could get away with "pulling off the pedal."
"The game plan was not [skiing at] 90 percent this morning," said Vonn's husband, Thomas. "It was, 'You have to attack, you have to go.' Then it kind of changed a little bit when we saw the carnage that was going on."
And that hesitancy or complacency or whatever it was, ultimately cost her. That she admitted it later is enviable, but it doesn't lessen the reality of a squandered opportunity.
"You get one medal under your belt, and it's a long two weeks," said U.S. women's coach Jim Tracy. "Sometimes you just want to ski a good line and not fully, fully attack where you need to attack. … In the Olympics, it's all about putting it all on the line – period. And if you don't put it on the line, you're maybe not going to be as fast as you want to be. That was classic today of Fischbacher. She put it all on the line. Either she was going to win or go out."
Of course, none of this diminishes who Vonn is. She's no less dominant. She'll still win her third straight World Cup overall title later this year, and take her place as one of the best international skiers of all time. And at 25, she'll be at her skiing peak for at least another five years, translating into more potential medals in the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
But for the skiing elite, there are a finite number of opportunities at gold. Vonn lost a handful when she crashed prior to the 2006 Games in Torino. And she lost two more in Vancouver, one by a fall in the super-combined, and another by her own complacency on Saturday. She may only have one or two more opportunities for Olympic gold left in her – and that's what makes Saturday so frustrating.
Vonn summed it up best when she said such a moment – such a lapse in aggression – was uncharacteristic. But we know better. We know it was downright unworthy. And that's why it hurts.