JEONGSEON, South Korea – For the first time in eight years, Lindsey Vonn was skiing at the Olympics.
Her return Saturday to the Olympic stage, in the women’s super-G, marked the latest chapter in a story that has seen her endure pain that would break almost anyone and everyone else.
You want your little girls and boys to grow up with fighting spirit? To dare to dream and dream as big as possible? To never, ever give up?
We present you Lindsey Vonn.
In Saturday’s race, Lindsey did not win a medal. She had a big slip late in the race. If not for the fifth- to perhaps eight-tenths of a second that she gave up in that slip, Lindsey wins. But no.
Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic won the race, literally by one-hundredth of a second. Austria’s Anna Vieth, the Sochi 2014 super-G winner, running 19th and back from knee injury, thought she had defended her title. Then Ledecka, the 2017 snowboarding parallel giant slalom champion, who had never – repeat, never – made a World Cup ski podium, 26th Saturday out of the gate, somehow summoned super-G magic.
A cameraman in the finish line told Ledecka she was the winner. She couldn’t believe it. Who could? Suddenly the Czech Republic had its first gold medal, ever, in alpine skiing.
“How did that happen?” Ledecka asked, shaking her head.
“I thought this was a mistake,” Ledecka said at one of the all-time most-excellent post-race news conferences, where she declined to take off her ski goggles because, as she put it, she wasn’t expecting to win and, “I don’t have no makeup.”
She continued, “I was looking at the board and they were going to put there a couple more seconds I was just waiting and watching until they were going to change the time.” The time didn’t change. “OK. Now it’s weird. OK.”
Still speaking in English, not her first language, she also offered perhaps the best answer, ever, to one of the most inane questions, ever: describe the overlap between snowboarding and skiing? “It’s down the hill. Both of them.”
Veith, also in English, again not her first language, would summarize: “Olympics is special and anything can happen.”
Tina Weirather of Lichtenstein took bronze. More Olympics: it’s her country’s 10th Olympic medal; seven have come from her family (her mom won four, her uncle, two).
The winning time: 1:21.11.
Lindsey tied for sixth, with Federica Brignone of Italy.
The race proved exceptionally tight: only 11-hundredths of a second separated first from third.
Sixth ended up 38-hundredths from first.
“I attacked. I gave it everything I had. I have no regrets. I made the mistake on the bottom,” Lindsey said afterward.
“I am disappointed,” she added. “I am not upset. All you can do is give it your best. That’s what I did.”
One of the things about covering alpine racing is that it is not like, say, the NFL or NBA, where the athletes are often cordoned off by layers of entourage. Lindsey Vonn is a real person, and those of us who have spent 10 or more years writing about her have seen these things, sometimes up close and personal:
In 2006, at the Games in Torino, she crashed in downhill training. She escaped from the hospital, in her words, to finish seventh in super-G and eighth in the downhill.
In 2009, at the world championships in Val d’Isere, France, she won the downhill. Then she sliced open a tendon in her right thumb while trying to spray celebratory champagne from a bottle that had been sliced open with a ski – when she arrived at an after-party, her thumb a bandaged curiosity. To this day, the thumb does not straighten properly.
Who remembers the deep shin bruise – and the cottage cheese-like stuff that she applied to it – that almost kept her out of the Vancouver Olympics in 2010? There she won gold in the downhill, bronze in the super-G.
In 2011, watching from the bottom of the hill at the world championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, here came Lindsey – fuzzy from a concussion – winning silver in the downhill.
In 2013, at the worlds in Austria, Lindsey blew out her knee in a super-G crash. Then she damaged the same knee in training in Colorado. Doctors said the knee was OK so she, as ever, kept racing. That December, back in Val d’Isere, she skied out of the downhill – more knee problems. In January 2014, she was forced to withdraw from the Sochi Games, just weeks away.
In February 2016, Lindsey, after racing in Andorra on what scans showed were three larger fractures, had to bring her season to a halt. She was eight races from a possible fifth World Cup overall title.
That November, she broke her right arm in a training crash at Copper Mountain. That one was really ugly.
After all that:
The super-G didn’t go Lindsey’s way. She drew bib No. 1. In super-G, it’s one run; no inspection; you just go. Running first means you’re the trailblazer. For Lindsey, being first, as she would say later, proved a “pretty big disadvantage,” compounded by a headwind that gusted in the middle of the course.
The other racers were able to watch – and learn – from Lindsey. She was already out of the medals by the time the seventh racer crossed the finish line.
She laughed. “At least I’m not fourth,” she said afterward.
All the same, she was back, skiing on Olympic snow: “It was amazing. I’m so thankful I am able to be here, I am able to ski and do what I love. I have had a roller-coaster last eight years, with so many injuries. But I’m here. I’m healthy. I’m able to ski 100 percent. And I’m just very thankful for the opportunity.
“I may not have gotten a medal today but I’m still proud of my performance. I have two more races left,” starting with a downhill, her best event, next Wednesday.
“So I’m hoping,” she said, “those will go a little bit better.”