JEONGSEON, South Korea (AP) — Mikaela Shiffrin already was assured of earning her third career medal, each in a different event, when Lindsey Vonn prepared to propel herself out of the starting gate as the final starter in the final race of her Olympic career.
This slalom portion of the two-leg Alpine combined would be the first — and only — time Vonn, 33, and U.S. teammate Shiffrin, 22, would compete against each other at any Olympics. Could Vonn possibly summon a “miracle,” as she called it, a slalom performance from somewhere in her past to make a lead from the downhill portion stand up? Could Shiffrin hold onto her silver?
With the snow carefully descending under the artificial lights lining the course, the drama quickly dimmed. Vonn’s slalom lasted all of about 10 seconds before she went off-course, leaving Shiffrin in second place Thursday between two women from Switzerland: gold medalist Michelle Gisin and bronze medalist Wendy Holdener.
Gisin, whose older sister Dominique tied for first in the 2014 Olympic downhill, produced a total time of 2 minutes, 20.90 seconds that was 0.97 seconds better than Shiffrin’s. Holdener was nearly 1½ second off Gisin’s pace, turning in the fastest slalom after standing 10th after the downhill.
Shiffrin ranked sixth in the downhill, 1.21 seconds slower than Gisin, and wasn’t able to make up that large a deficit in her forte, the slalom, which was a much shorter track. The downhill took about 100 seconds; the slalom about 40.
“Clearly,” said Shiffrin’s coach, Mike Day, “the downhill didn’t go quite to plan.”
Still, Shiffrin added the combined silver to her giant slalom gold from a week earlier, giving her two medals — plus a surprisingly low fourth-place finish in the slalom — in three races. She arrived in South Korea to chatter about entering five, but after a series of weather-related schedule changes, wound up dropping two.
“It’s really nice to be at the end of it,” she said, “and know that I do have two medals.”
With her slalom gold from the 2014 Games, Shiffrin joins Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso as the only Americans with a medal in each of at least three Alpine disciplines.
“It’s like being a great butterflier, being a great breaststroker, being a great freestyler and being a great backstroker,” Day said. “There’s not many people who do all of those really well.”
Eight years ago, it was Vonn who went to the Vancouver Olympics accompanied by outsized anticipation and unrealistic speculation (by others) about four or five medals. She, too, came away with two, then missed the Sochi Olympics after tearing knee ligaments.
At what she has said must be her last Olympics because her oft-injured body cannot endure another four years, Vonn added a bronze on Wednesday in the downhill, one of the races Shiffrin elected to skip to conserve energy.
After Vonn’s slalom ended suddenly, she crossed paths with Shiffrin in the finish area. They had a brief exchange.
“I mean, it’s incredible what she’s able to accomplish. She’s so young and she approaches ski racing much different than pretty much anyone else,” Vonn said later. “I think she had potential to do a lot more at these Games, but at the same time — same like me, you can’t expect everything all the time.”
So, then, there they were as the sun settled behind the clouds, the temperature dipped and the last individual Alpine race of the Pyeongchang Games concluded. Yes, there is a team event Saturday, but neither Vonn nor Shiffrin is expected to enter, as is the case with the rest of the sport’s biggest names, who would prefer to take a break before returning to the World Cup circuit.
Shiffrin is the best female skier of today, chasing a second consecutive overall title; Vonn is the best female skier in history, just five World Cup race wins away from tying Ingemar Stenmark’s all-time record of 86.
Tears gathered in Vonn’s eyes as she spoke about wishing she could be at Beijing in 2022, but knowing “that’s just not the way it is,” because, she explained, “My mind is still telling me I can do things that my body is telling me I can’t. “
Shiffrin, smiling and chuckling, talked about “a mix of thoughts right now,” and her struggles with anxiety and internal pressures while dealing with postponements of the slalom and giant slalom, then the pushing up of the combined from Friday, making it all feel as if “someone was playing a game of ping-pong in my brain.”
Neither can possibly know what the future will bring, of course.
But Vonn offered some words of caution about Shiffrin, who for quite some time, fairly or not, has been labeled “The Next Lindsey Vonn.”
“She can ski for another 10 years and have a lot more medals and a lot more World Cups. But as I saw in my career, things can change quite quickly. You never know what’s going to happen,” Vonn said. “That’s why you have to appreciate every moment that you have, because ski racing has a way of taking a lot from you.”
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