BUKPYEONG, South Korea – For one final time, Lindsey Vonn stared down an Olympic downhill course, 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 1 3/4 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 her third Olympic medal of her extraordinary Alpine career and was essentially eight years in the making. She was 32 when 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.
Italy’s Sofia Goggia entered the race ranked No. 1 in the World Cup downhill standings, and she did not disappoint. 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.
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 and for the moment at least, comfortably in second. 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, Norway’s Regnhild Mowinckel, hit the course. Mowinckel had never posted a podium finish on the World Cup circuit and finished 27th in the downhill four years ago Sochi. But the 25-year-old seems to be enjoying the Korean snow and just four days earlier took silver in the women’s super-G. 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 likely be her last.
She’d also dedicated the Pyeongchang Games to her grandfather, Don Kildow, who died last November at the age of 88 – “I want so badly to do well for him,” she’d said – and now has a new medal in his honor.
While Vonn entered the race as a strong podium candidate, she was not necessarily the race favorite, which is still an unusual feeling. For a stretch of eight years – 2008-16 – 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.
She entered Saturday’s event ranked No. 2 in the World Cup’s downhill standings. Vonn raced in seven World Cup downhill events this season, slowly getting more and more comfortable. She was leading her first race of the season, in Lake Louise, Canada, on Dec. 1, when she crashed within sight of the finish line. She then posted finishes of 12th and 27th but was starting to find her groove in the weeks leading into the Olympics. Before Pyeongchang, Vonn posted four straight downhill podiums and won her past three downhill races, including two earlier this month in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
Downhill was always her best race. She finished sixth in the super-G race Saturday, saying afterward, “In general, this season I feel like I’ve been much better in downhill than super-G. And this hill, it suits me really well for downhill.”
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 currently ranked No. 5 the World Cup’s 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 almost surely be the final Olympic race ever for one of the best female racers to ever step into a pair of skis.
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