Lindsey Vonn’s Olympics began the way everyone expected them to, with a gold medal in the downhill, her signature event.
Little went according to plan thereafter.
Yes, Vonn did collect a second medal, a bronze in the super-G, but she faulted herself for making the mistake of easing up on the bottom half of the course and giving away the gold.
Otherwise, she failed to finish three of her five races.
She hooked a gate in the slalom leg of the super-combined, skiing out and wasting a lead that appeared to set her up for another victory. She took a nasty tumble in the giant slalom, breaking her right pinkie and punishing her back. Her last event, Friday’s slalom, ended after less than 20 seconds, when she straddled a gate in the first of two runs.
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.”
Vonn also made this absolutely clear: She is thrilled to be heading home with her first Olympic medals.
“I know I could have done better in some of the disciplines … but I am totally satisfied with everything that I’ve done here in Vancouver,” Vonn said. “I have the gold medal that I came here for, and I couldn’t be happier.”
One certainly is better than none, particularly when you consider that Vonn banged up her right shin 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 25-year-old from Vail, Colo., did compete.
“She keeps going. That’s what everybody loves about her,” said Vonn’s mother, Linda Krohn. “She’s not a quitter. She skis as hard as she can, every time.”
Vonn’s tenacity and skill are why she generated so much hype before these Winter Games.
She won the past two World Cup overall titles and is on pace for a third. NBC focused so much of its Olympics promotions on Vonn, and Sports Illustrated put her on the cover of its Vancouver preview issue.
In the first women’s Alpine race, the downhill Feb. 17, Vonn lived up to the billing.
And that whole experience was one she won’t forget.
Stepping atop the podium. Hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” All the tears of joy. 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.
“Your whole life, you’ve waited for this, and you could just see the emotion in her face,” Vonn’s mom said. “I never see her cry. So it was just a wonderful release. You know how hard she’s worked for it, and she did it. There can’t be anything better than that.”
But if others were breathlessly envisioning three, four, five medals — indeed, three or more golds, even — Vonn never did.
“Going into these games, everyone was expecting a lot of me,” she said, “and I just tried to be realistic and just stay focused on one race at a time and just try for one medal at a time.”
So there she was in the starting gate for Friday’s slalom — her 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 went over a gate rather than around it.
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.”
She stuck around to watch Friday’s second slalom run 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.
“Awesome,” Vonn told Riesch. “I’m so proud of you.”
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 when Vonn blew her lead.
“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.”
Much as 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.
Still, Vonn left with a smile.
“I have that gold medal, and despite everyone else’s expectations, my goals were simply to win one medal,” she said, “and that’s what I did.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.