Lindsey Vonn lost today, the victim of a very nasty wipeout. But the crash itself wasn’t nearly as painful as what happened a few minutes later, when America’s sweetheart of the slopes picked herself up, clicked her skis back on, and coasted down the rest of the hill. Waiting at the finish line, hugging and whooping it up for the cameras, were the three skiers who did win a medal in the women’s super combined. Vonn had no choice but to slam on the brakes and wait for the victory photo-op to wrap up.
“I tried as hard as I could, but it just unfortunately didn’t go my way today,” said the Minnesota native, who struck gold a day earlier in the women’s downhill. “But that’s ski racing. I wish I could have made it to the bottom, but that’s life.”
To say she choked is a tad unfair, but this was Vonn’s event to win. She finished the first heat (the downhill) with the fastest time in the field, and a respectable showing in the second race (the slalom) would have assured the U.S. star at least a spot on the podium. But after some impressive second runs by her closest rivals—including Germany’s Maria Riesch, the eventual gold medal winner, and American teammate Julia Mancuso, who took the silver—Vonn said she had no choice but to “attack” the course. Unfortunately for her, it attacked back. Coming out of a particularly difficult turn, her right ski clipped one of the slalom gates and sent the rest of her body tumbling toward a very rare DNF (Did Not Finish).
“I wanted to get the gold medal,” she said afterwards. “I won gold yesterday so I didn’t really want to shoot for something lower than that. I knew I was capable of winning. I knew it was possible. I could have skied a safe run and probably still got a bronze medal, but I didn’t really want to do that.”
That bronze went to Anja Paerson, the Swedish skier who suffered her own spectacular crash during Wednesday’s downhill (leaving her with a “bruised butt,” among other bumps and scratches). Until just minutes before today’s first heat, the 28-year-old wasn’t even sure she could compete. “I was pretty scared this morning because it was hurting a lot,” Paerson said. “[But] I got the atmosphere at the start and then I got the determination in my head. I knew I had to go for it.” She certainly made the right choice. Her bronze was her sixth Olympic medal, tying her for most-ever by a female Alpine skier.
But the day ultimately belonged to Riesch, the power-skiing German who finished second behind Vonn in the first heat but roared back with a flawless slalom that pushed her into top spot—and put the pressure squarely on her American opponent. “To win a gold medal, everything must be perfect that day for you,” said Riesch, who was forced to miss the 2006 Games in Turin because of an injured ACL. “And today, everything was perfect for me.”
At the post-race press conference, a reporter asked Riesch if she felt sorry for Vonn, whose crash officially sealed her first Olympic gold. The two women, both 25, are actually dear friends. They vacation with each other in the off-season, and have spent more than one Christmas together. “To be honest, in the first moment you just think: ‘I won the race,’ ” she said. “That’s normal, and I think anybody does the same. I think [Wednesday] she was also happy that I was slower than her and she won the gold medal. It’s normal, but of course I felt bad for her. She has a gold medal from yesterday, today was a bad day for her, and yesterday was a bad day for me. That’s how sports is.”
Riesch was not the only skier who made the world forget Lindsey Vonn (at least temporarily). Amid all the pre-Olympic hype surrounding her teammate—who attracted more than a few new fans by donning a swimsuit for Sports Illustrated—Julia Mancuso has quietly become the most accomplished skier in U.S. Olympic history, with one gold and two silvers. She was so elated by her slalom run this afternoon that she fell to the ground and kicked her feet in the air. “That’s the Julia dance,” she laughed. “It is that moment you wait for as an athlete—the moment that you realize: ‘I have been working so hard for this moment, and anything is possible.’ I just believed and went for it.”
Canada’s female skiers were not so thrilled. Georgia Simmerling, injured in Wednesday’s downhill, was unable to compete. Shona Rubens of Canmore, Alta., was the top Canadian, finishing 12th, while Emily Brydon of Fernie, B.C., placed 14th. Despite the home hill advantage, not a single alpine skier wearing the Maple Leaf—male or female—has stood on a podium this Olympics. “I wish we weren’t in the boat we are in, but we are,” Brydon said. “That’s the reality of it. I don’t think we could have done anything differently to be more prepared.”
Canada’s next chance for a skiing medal comes Friday at the men’s Super Giant Slalom. As for Lindsey Vonn, she’ll be taking the day off—“getting as much therapy as humanly possible” on a famously bruised right shin—in preparation for the ladies’ Super G on Saturday.