PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Before the season even started, Lindsey Vonn made her goal clear. She wanted to win another Olympic medal. It had been eight long years.
But the bib draw for the women’s super-G did her no favors. She was saddled with bib 1. She would get no course reports from teammates, nor would she see anyone else race the course ahead of her, watching for trouble spots.
And in super-G, there are no training runs.
“It was either going to be really great or really bad,” Vonn said. “And it didn’t quite turn out the way I hoped.”
On a cold breezy day at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 — her first Olympic Games in eight years — Vonn arced down a course that she had not raced in a year. She looked good until one of the final turns, when she thinks she released her left ski too early, rather than holding the edge over the knoll. She barely made the next gate, then skied out wide.
Vonn ended up tied for sixth place.
“That’s what’s so difficult about super-G is that you don’t know the speeds, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I did the best I could with what I had.”
Instead, in one of the stunners of the PyeongChang Games, skiing snowboarder Ester Ledecka won. The charming, funny Czech skier, who will compete in parallel giant slalom snowboarding next week, came down in 1:21.11 and knocked Austrian Anna Veith — the reigning super-G Olympic champion — from the gold-medal spot by one-hundredth of a second.
Veith held on for silver with a time of 1:21.12, with Liechtenstein’s Tina Weirather, the 2017 world championship silver medalist, taking her first Olympic medal (bronze) in 1:21.22.
Team USA's Breezy Johnson, Laurenne Ross and Alice McKennis finished within a few hundredths of a second of each other. Johnson was 14th in 1:22.14, with Ross 15th 0.03 seconds behind her and McKennis 16th 0.03 seconds back from Ross.
A two-time snowboarding world champion, Ledecka is coached by 2014 U.S. Olympic snowboarder Justin Reiter. She is the first athlete to ever compete in two different sports in the same Olympic Games. This is her first major international win in alpine skiing.
Ledecka even surprised herself. In the post-race press conference, she refused to remove her goggles, joking that she was not expecting to make the podium so brought no make-up with her.
Of Ledecka’s win, Vonn paused, then said: “Well, you know, all I can say is I wish I had as much athleticism as she does to be able to win in two sports in the same Olympics because I’m only good at one sport and that’s ski racing. The fact that she’s able to beat all of us and be a snowboarder is pretty darn impressive.”
Vonn was happy with her own performance as well.
“Obviously, I didn’t get a medal, but man, I’ve been waiting eight years for this,” she said. “I’m super happy. I left it all on the hill.”
Without the mistake at the bottom of the course, Vonn thought that she might have been in the medals. But the timing splits showed otherwise. She was only in first at the first split, then fell to 16th in the middle (where she said wind hampered her speed), then fifth at the final split. That time check was above where she skied wide.
Vonn will now have to wait four days to see if she can win an elusive third Olympic medal, this time in women’s downhill.
She has already waited long enough — and ventured down a very bumpy course in the past eight years.
Since she first won Olympic medals — a gold in downhill and bronze in super-G at the 2010 Vancouver Games — 33-year-old Vonn has suffered multiple knee, leg and arm injuries, all requiring surgery. Her personal life has also played out in national news, as she went through a divorce, then a high-profile romance with golfer Tiger Woods. And she reconciled with her father, Alan Kildow, a couple of years after the Vancouver Games.
In November 2013, as she was recovering from her first significant knee injury, she re-injured the same knee and missed the 2014 Olympics. At the time, she vowed to make it to the PyeongChang Games.
Then came a devastating upper arm break in November 2016 that required a plate and multiple screws to repair. Vonn lost feeling in her hand and had her coach duct-tape her ski pole to her mitten, so she could hold it as she raced.
Through it all, she managed to keep racing when she could, accruing a record 81 world cup victories across her career — 28 of them (or 34.5%) in super-G. She holds the women’s record for the most world cup wins and is five shy of tying Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark with 86.
Vonn has 135 world cup podium finishes total, two of them on the Jeongseon course last year. She finished second in both the downhill and super-G test events last March. It boded well for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games — as did her two world cup downhill wins in early February two days in a row.
In November 2017, her paternal grandfather, Don Kildow, died at age 88. He liked to ski, and he started Alan Kildow down his ski-racing path. Because Alan skied, so did his daughter, Lindsey. The sport connected the three generations.
Before the PyeongChang Games began, a tearful Vonn — who took her former husband’s last name and kept it after their divorce — said that she was dedicating her racing here to her grandfather.
“Tomorrow it’s game time!” she tweeted last night. “I will give it everything I have with no regrets. This is for my Grandpa!” … with the hashtag #allformyGrandpa.
She did exactly that.
“I attacked and that’s what happens,” she said of the mistake that sent her wide. “I would be more disappointed in myself if I came down slow and not pushing myself and skiing stiff. But I didn’t. I was prepared, I was aggressive, I had a great inspection, I felt awesome, I skied well. Everything lined up except for one turn, and that’s all it takes and that’s ski racing.”
“That’s why it’s so difficult to win at the Olympics because literally anything can happen,” she added. “All you can do is prepare your best, give your best. And at the end of the day, I’m going to go home and be happy with myself because there’s nothing more I could have done.”
The women’s downhill is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 21. And Vonn said that she is skiing downhill better than super-G this season, as evidenced by her three consecutive downhill wins this year, all leading up to the PyeongChang Games.
In a quiet voice, Vonn said, “I would hope that I’m skiing well for the downhill.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games, PyeongChang is her fifth. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.