PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—Bronze medals dare us to measure them. They are for some, a crushing disappointment; for others, a towering success. They are burnished metal discs, hung from silken lanyards, similar in many ways to gold medals and silver medals, but somehow very different too. They represent both falling short and standing tall, both winning, and losing. It is what makes the Olympics different from any other competition on Earth, a place where, on the right day, third place is a victory. (This status is complicated by the raging U.S. demand that Olympic athletes Bring Home the Gold.) Wednesday, in the mountains 20 miles south of the Olympic cauldron, third place was a soaring triumph for 33-year-old U. S. ski racer Lindsey Vonn.
Eight years ago at the Olympics in Vancouver, Vonn, a tall, 25-year-old blonde woman from Minnesota who learned to ski on a little bump of a hill by a highway and would become the best women’s ski racer in history, won a gold medal in the downhill. She had been weakened at the 2006 Olympics by a training crash and had, between Turin and Vancouver, become the dominant speed racer in her sport, with a propensity for fearlessness and risk that was startling, and with a long braid bouncing from the bottom of her helmet like a vapor trail. That gold medal in 2010, won by 0.56 seconds over U.S. rival Julia Mancuso, was her destiny. Anything less would have been a roaring disappointment.
The ensuing eight years brought operatic change. She was divorced from the husband and coach whom she met when she was just 17, and then she dated Tiger Woods, in a public courtship that was exhausting, nonstop tabloid fodder. And ski racing destroyed her body (as ski racing will do), most notably with a horrific knee injury (a torn ACL and MCL with a tibial fracture) in 2013 (she reinjured the knee later that year) and a fracture of her right humerus in November 2016 that left her unable to brush her teeth, never mind race down a mountainside at 80 miles an hour. (She still has 20 screws and a foot-long metal plate in her upper arm.)
Between personal dramas and physical breakdowns, she won 81 World Cup races, more than any woman in history and only five short of Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark’s all-time record (which she continues to pursue). She missed the 2014 Olympics with the knee injury and staggered toward PyeongChang. She crashed in November at Lake Louise in Canada, which had long been her favorite track. “At that point,’’ said U.S. Ski team speed coach Chip White, “we just wanted to get her [to the Olympics] in one piece.”
She took time off in December and early January to heal and train at home in Vail and rallied to win the last three World Cup downhills before the Olympics. But last Saturday in Korea (Friday night in the U.S.), she skied splendidly for most of the super-G, before making a costly mistake near the bottom of the run and finishing tied for sixth. These are Vonn’s last Olympics. Time was running out.
So it came to be that Vonn stood amongst the media at the base of the downhill course Wednesday afternoon at Jeongseon Alpine Center. The sun was falling swiftly and a wind had kicked up, whistling down from the top of the hill. Vonn shivered as she talked. She had finished third, 0.47 seconds behind the gold medalist, Italy’s Sofia Goggia (not a surprise), and 0.36 seconds behind Ragnhild Mowinckel of Norway (a surprise, though another medal for Norway at these Games was not).
“I am so thankful to be here, and to be on the podium in what is most likely my last Olympic downhill race,’’ Vonn said. “It’s so difficult to be on the podium at the Olympics and I’m really proud to have another medal.’’
She measured the distance from Vancouver, a journey with twists she could never have anticipated when she was 25 and healthy and invincible. “I have a different understanding for life now,’’ said Vonn. “I have such a different perspective than I did eight years ago. I’ve been in the fences so many times. I know so many doctors on a first-name basis that it’s ridiculous. It’s taken its toll. But the injuries have made me stronger. The Olympic gold medal in Vancouver set the course for my career and I don’t think it means any more or any less than this medal now.’’
Chris Knight, a New Zealand native who is Vonn’s primary coach with the U.S. team, said, “Any medal is good at the Olympics. There’s a different kind of pressure at the Olympics. It would have been a fairy tale ending to have a gold medal after all those crashes. But a bronze medal, you’ve got to take it, go home, and be happy.’’
Vonn started in the No. 7 position on a crystal-clear, temporarily windless day in the mountains. But first came Goggia, who, like Mowinckel, is 25 years old and was just 17 when Vonn won her downhill gold in Vancouver. Goggia skied brilliantly. “I was focused on myself today,’’ said Goggia, who leads the World Cup downhill standings, but finished second to Vonn in those last three World Cup downhills. She hit the finish in 1:39.22 and took the lead from Tina Weirather of Lichtenstein by a whopping 0.63 seconds.
Two skiers later, Vonn came down the mountainside. Her skiing was flowing and almost mistake-free—“I saw a couple bobbles I wasn’t expecting to see,’’ said Knight. It simply wasn’t as fast as Goggia’s. Vonn was second, 0.47 seconds behind, not terribly close in a sport where razor-thin margins are common. “I thought I skied really well,’’ said Vonn. “I thought I executed the line perfectly. Maybe I was a little too clean, a little bit too precise. Maybe I should have let the skis run a little more.’’
(This is where ski racers find themselves, in the middle ground between recklessness and caution. Vonn skied fast and clean—beautifully, even—and won a bronze medal and stayed out of the fences. There is glory in that.) At the finish, Vonn spread her arms wide and smiled, in a universal symbol for having done the best she could. She pointed at Goggia, out of respect, and also at the sky, in recognition of her grandfather, Don Kildow, who served with the U.S. Army in Korea and had hoped to attend these Games. He died on Nov. 1 at the age of 88. “Of course I wanted desperately to win for him today,’’ she said. “I wish he was here. I think he still is. It would have been very easy for me to stiffen up and let the emotions control me. I didn’t, and I’m proud of that.’’
What looked like a certain silver medal for Vonn became a bronze when Mowinckel blasted down from the No. 19 start position—the last seeded skier in the field—and nearly took down Goggia. “It was an insane feeling,’’ said Mowinckel, who has never made a World Cup podium in downhill. “I’m, for sure, in shock.’’ Mowinckel, who took the silver medal behind U.S. racer Mikaela Shiffrin in the giant slalom last week, became the first woman to win two Alpine medals in PyeongChang.
For Vonn, her bronze was historic, too. She became just the third U.S. Alpine skier in history to win three career Olympic medals (Bode Miller won six and Mancuso four) and the fourth woman to win two career Olympic downhill medals (Traudi Hecher of Austria won bronze medals in 1960 and ’64; Annemarie Moser-Proell of Austria won a silver in 1972 and a gold in ’80; and Katja Seizinger of Germany won golds in 1994 and ’98).
And Vonn is not finished at these Games; she will ski Thursday morning and afternoon in the Alpine combined (one run of downhill, followed by one run of slalom). She finished fourth in the only combined race on this season’s World Cup circuit, but her teammate, Shiffrin, is considered a likelier medalist in PyeongChang. (Shiffrin did not ski in that one combined race this season.) It will be the only time Vonn and Shiffrin compete against each other at these—or any—Olympics.
But for Vonn, there is a heavy element of valedictory to her presence—and performances—here. Goggia was asked about Vonn’s career and seemed shocked at the suggestion. “Really, you are asking me to commentate on the greatest skier,’’ she said. “It speaks for itself. She has 140 podiums [135 actually], I have 20. She has 81 victories, I have four. She’s unbelievable.’’ Goggia noted Vonn’s willingness to engage with fans, particularly young girls. “She never acts like she is on Olympus, where she could be. She is the greatest.’’ (Vonn, as if on cue, while cold and sore after the race, walked to a barrier and posed for selfies with a group of fans who had waited more than 2½ hours after the race and were waving signs bearing Vonn’s name.
For Vonn, the downhill was a moment of redemption, of survival and of closure. She will pay for her crashes for the rest of her life. “I’m 33,’’ she said. “In ski racing I’m over the hill. I wish this wasn’t my last Olympics, but it is. I’d like to have a little less pain, but otherwise I wouldn’t change it.’’
Eight years have passed: a dominant gold then, a resonant bronze now. “I was on top of the world then,’’ she said yesterday, standing on hard-packed snow, thousands of miles from Vancouver, and from Minnesota too. “I still feel like I’m on top of the world now.’’