JEONGSEON, South Korea – It will take Lindsey Vonn 100 seconds, more or less, to ski the Olympic downhill on Wednesday. It has taken her eight years to get back to this moment. Take it in. Appreciate it. Appreciate – her.
The three training runs here at the Jeongseon downhill course suggest that Vonn is in excellent position for a medal. Of course, in Alpine racing, nothing – nothing – can be taken for granted.
When Vonn crosses the finish line, whether she wins gold or any medal, or like her super-G run earlier at these Olympics that left her off the podium, her race will mark the end of an era for American Alpine racing.
“It’s all or nothing,” she said after Tuesday’s training run. “There’s nothing to be nervous about or think about pressure or expectations. Either I win or I lose.”
As she did before the super-G, she said, she plans to “absolutely give it everything I have,” and with that, “I will be satisfied, no matter what.”
For 12 years, since she crawled out of a hospital bed after a wicked training crash to race the downhill at the Torino Olympics, Vonn has been a – if not the – mainstay of the U.S. ski team. She is the link from the years in which Bode Miller was winning the World Cup overall crystal globe to, now, the Mikaela Shiffrin era and, as well, Julia Mancuso and Ted Ligety and everything and everyone in between.
She is the greatest skier – no equivocation, no dispute – the United States has ever produced.
Vonn has 81 World Cup victories, most ever by a woman, just five behind Sweden’s Ingemark Stenmark. Heading into Wednesday’s race, she has two Olympic medals, one gold, the Vancouver 2010 downhill.
Beyond any and all of that, she is a real person.
She is approachable, opinionated, eloquent, articulate and, as she said Monday in one of a number of get-togethers this week with reporters, “always funny.”
“There’s, of course, going to be people that hate me and hope I ski off a cliff and die,” she said. But, you know, that’s fine. I’m not going to do that. It’s people sitting behind a computer and they will say anything. You take it for what it’s worth and, at some point, you just laugh because it’s ridiculous.”
After all these years of keen public scrutiny, she has developed a thick skin. The internet trolls?
“They want to defeat you,” she said. “And I’m not defeated. I’m the same. I stand by my values. I’m not going to back down. I may not be as vocal right now with my opinions but that doesn’t mean they’ve won. I haven’t changed my mind.”
On the course, of course, she is – as ever – a competitor. To the max degree. In Monday’s downhill training run, the second of three, she stood up “quite a ways” before the finish line, which naturally cost her a lot of time. In Tuesday’s training run, she missed a gate. So what? Training times mean little.
“I was trying to slow myself down,” she said Monday. “I actually didn’t want to win the training run today. I like letting other people think that they’re faster. In skiing, there are a few things you can do to play mind games, so I use every opportunity.”
When you watch Vonn run Wednesday, note her start position. It will be calculated. Her No. 1 rival – in her mind, and in the mind of many observers – is Italy’s Sofia Goggia. Vonn’s plan is to pick a start number immediately after Goggia’s – both so she can watch Goggia’s line and so that she, Vonn, can know Goggia’s time when it’s go-time.
This final Olympic downhill is in every way a passing of the proverbial torch. The Americans have for many years relied on a star system – instead of team depth, a topic that merits a separate discussion, for sure – to bring in medals. Shiffrin is the new star. Shiffrin is skipping the downhill to concentrate on the super-combined, which runs Thursday. (Vonn will also race the super-combined but a medal there would be, as Vonn put it, again with a humorous touch, “Russian roulette,” because she no longer regularly trains slalom.
Given the American star system, and absent a huge surprise from one of the other American racers, Vonn should thus have the spotlight Wednesday all to herself.
Which is as it should be.
Asked Monday if she was thinking about this being her final Olympic downhill, Vonn said:
“I”m trying not to think about it I”m trying just to enjoy literally every second, and enjoy being with my team …
“I’ve tried not to think about it as being my last Olympic downhill, just focus on the moment, the right-here, the right-now. I think, later, I’ll reflect on how much I enjoyed it. How much my teammates and my coaches made it special. You can’t get too sentimental right now. I still have to race.”