Vonn's Olympics end with slalom mistake, 2 medals
These Olympics were supposed to be Lindsey Vonn's Olympics, and she wanted to finish them skiing, not watching.
So there she was in the starting gate for Friday's slalom - her broken right pinkie protected by a plastic brace and encased in a soft crimson mitten instead of a sturdy white glove; her back and famously bruised shin aching; her mind well aware she had little chance in an event that's given her fits all season.
As it turned out, Vonn's right ski slid too wide as she came out of a left-hand turn early in the first of two slalom runs contested through a veil of dense fog and penny-sized snowflakes. She straddled a gate instead of going around it.
Her final event at the Vancouver Games lasted less than 20 seconds, and after a shrug and a stare at the spot where things went wrong, Vonn slowly made her way to the bottom of the hill, then began the process of publicly assessing the ups and downs of her high-profile two weeks at Whistler.
``At this point, I'm kind of happy that the Olympics are over,'' she said. ``I just feel mentally and physically beat down.''
The good: a gold in her signature event, the downhill, and a bronze in the super-G.
The bad: failing to complete her other three races, plus accumulating all manner of injuries that Vonn said left her ``just trying to put the duct tape around all my body parts and stay together.''
All in all, nowhere near the Michael Phelps-like performance some predicted, but OK by her.
``Five gold medals was never my goal. Of course, I wanted to try. And looking back, four medals were very realistic,'' Vonn said. ``But nothing goes the way you want it to. Nothing's ever perfect.''
While the 25-year-old from Vail, Colo., didn't qualify for Friday's second slalom run, she stuck around and was ready with a congratulatory hug for champion Maria Riesch of Germany, Vonn's top rival and best friend on the World Cup circuit.
``I'm so proud of you,'' Vonn told Riesch.
By winning the slalom with a two-leg time of 1 minute, 42.89 seconds, it's Riesch - not Vonn - who will depart Whistler with two gold medals. Riesch also won the super-combined after Vonn blew a lead by hooking a gate in the slalom portion of that two-run race.
``It was hard for her today, because her finger is in lots of pain, and she couldn't train very much in the last days and weeks,'' Riesch said. ``I'm really sorry for her, but she did a great games here. She killed the downhill. ... She can go home happy.''
Indeed, Vonn insisted she'll do precisely that.
As her mother, Linda Krohn, put it: ``You can't beat a gold medal, can you? It works for me.''
Yes, one certainly is better than none, particularly when you consider that Vonn banged up her right leg during slalom practice Feb. 2, badly enough that simply walking became a chore for the next 48 hours or so. That accident came on the very first run of what was supposed to be three days of pre-Olympic training, and the forced time away from the slopes not only cut into Vonn's preparation, it left her questioning whether she'd be able to compete at all.
Then came her spill in the giant slalom Wednesday, when Vonn ended up tangled in the course-side netting after slamming her chin off her knee, pounding her back against the hard slope and breaking her finger.
While the U.S. Olympic Committee and Vonn herself said she contemplated skipping Friday's race, it shouldn't have surprised anyone that the two-time World Cup overall champion did compete.
``She keeps going. That's what everybody loves about her,'' Vonn's mother said. ``She's not a quitter. She skis as hard as she can, every time.''
Don't forget, Vonn's 2006 Turin Olympics began with a body-battering training crash at more than 50 mph that sent her to the hospital.
Yet she raced less than 48 hours later.
It wouldn't have seemed right to Vonn to skip Friday's race, even if she had produced only one podium finish in seven World Cup slaloms this season and hadn't managed to complete the last three before Vancouver.
``That's just, I guess, my personality. I never want to give up,'' she said. ``The Olympics are something special - they only come once every four years - and I wanted to go out there and try. I knew that I wasn't probably going to win a medal, but at least I gave it everything I have.''
Much like she didn't blame the shin for her problems in the giant slalom or the super-combined, Vonn refused to point to her pinkie when evaluating her slip-up in the slalom. She attributed it to ``pure bad luck or bad skiing, whatever you want to call it.''
Hardly a storybook ending.
Hardly the way things were supposed to wind up at ``Vonncouver,'' which was stitched on the side of her mom's white knit cap.
``I was stoked she got that gold medal with all the pressure. I would've hoped she could've pulled out a couple of more - super-combined, she almost had it,'' said Sarah Schleper of Vail, who finished 16th Friday with five stitches in her chin after smacking it into a gate warming up. ``She should've had a couple more medals. But I'm super-happy she got to come away with a gold here.''
Regardless of how anyone else might evaluate or remember Vonn's performance at her third Olympics, she'll forever focus on - cherish, really - the downhill victory.
She called it ``the most emotional race I've even been a part of in my life,'' and said that victory will provide confidence when it's time to compete at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
More immediately, Vonn will think about the race itself, to be sure, but also the aftermath.
Stepping atop the podium. Hearing ``The Star-Spangled Banner.'' Celebrating with her mother and siblings, including the brother who had her initials shaved into his hair, the ``L'' on one side, ``V'' on the other.
``I have that gold medal, and despite everyone else's expectations, my goals were simply to win one medal,'' Vonn said, ``and that's what I did.''
A few minutes later, she hopped a barrier and made her way over to Mom for a long, hearty embrace. Then Vonn casually made her way along a path nestled between snow-powdered pine trees, skiing one final time down the Vancouver Games mountain, site of her first Olympic gold.