BUKPYEONG, South Korea — Way back in 2010, Lindsey Vonn felt she’d figured out the Olympics. It was her third Winter Games and she was certain she’d finally solved the puzzle. Not only did Vonn win gold and bronze medals in Vancouver, but she’d learned how to juggle the pressures, the logistics and the intangibles inherent to her sport. Injuries kept her from competing in 2014, and she had to wait a full eight years to apply those lessons.
But the alpine courses are all different and in her first race of these Pyeongchang Olympics, the 33-year-old Vonn — one of the most decorated female alpine skiers the sport has known — was bested by a late turn and a surprising, versatile young racer in Saturday’s super-G event. Despite an otherwise medal-worthy race, her mistake proved costly and Vonn opened her Olympics with disappointment, tied for sixth place in a race that was unpredictable in just about every way possible.
“I gave it everything I had,” Vonn said. “I left it all on the hill, which I knew I would. Just made one mistake. And that cost me a medal.”
In one of the biggest upsets of these Olympics, Czech skier Ester Ledecka, who’s competing in Pyeongchang both on a snowboard and on skis, stunned the super-G field to claim gold. The podium looked set before Ledecka, the day’s 26th skier and the world’s 43rd-ranked super-G racer, blazed her path through the course, finishing in a time of 1:21.11, appearing to surprise even herself in the process.
That mark put her 0.38 seconds ahead of Vonn and just 0.01 ahead of silver medalist Anna Veith, of Austria. Liechtenstein’s Tina Weirather took bronze, finishing 0.11 seconds off the lead.
By then, Vonn’s super-G fate had already been sealed. She tore through the top half of the course, but with the finish line almost in sight, she struggled on one of her final turns, skiing off her line and very nearly losing her balance altogether.
“The thing with this hill is it’s not very steep,” she said later. “If you make one mistake, it not only affects the immediate split time, but it compounds down the entire slope. So there is really no room for error.”
She recovered quickly and still posted one of the day’s top times — 1:21.49 — but a full 0.27 seconds separated Vonn from the podium. She appeared slightly stunned and surely disappointed after the race, shaking her head at the bottom of the course.
Because she was the first of 45 racers, she had to wait and watch, hoping her mistake wouldn’t prove as costly as she feared. It took only six racers before Vonn was bumped out of the running for a possible medal.
“I was prepared. I was aggressive. I had a great inspection. I felt awesome. I skied well,” Vonn said. “Everything lined up except for one turn, and that’s all it takes, and that’s ski racing. That’s why it’s so difficult to win at the Olympics because literally anything can happen.”
While all eyes were on Vonn at the start of the race, it was Ledecka, 22, who stole the show. She had only one career top-10 on the World Cup circuit, finishing in seventh in the downhill two months ago in Lake Louise, Alberta. And her best super-G race before Saturday? She’d posted a pair of 19th-place finishes last season.
She’d only started skiing World Cups in February 2016, in fact. She was an elite snowboarder before that and won world championships in back-to-back years, the parallel slalom in 2015 and the parallel giant slalom in 2017. She juggling a complicated competition schedule this season, shuffling between snowboard and ski events, to become the first athlete to compete in both sports at an Olympics. In Sochi four years ago, she posted sixth- and seventh-place finishes in the slalom events as an 18-year old.
“Her focus today was just to have a good run,” said Justin Reiter, a former U.S. snowboarder who coaches Ledecka. “She’s not a medal favorite. She just wanted to come here and be the first person ever to ski and snowboard race, and she stayed in her heart, and she stayed in her own head, and she skied like she can ski. It was beautiful to watch.”
Ledecka is skipping the downhill here to prepare for Thursday’s snowboarding parallel giant slalom.
While the ski world tries to process Saturday’s upset, Vonn will turn her attention forward. She has two more chances to nab an Olympic medal here. The women’s downhill — her best event — is scheduled for Wednesday and the combined is set for Friday, and Vonn is considered a podium threat in both.
“I don’t see this as a negative,” she said of Saturday’s loss. “Obviously, I didn’t get a medal. Man, I’ve been waiting eight years for this. I’m super happy. I left it all on the hill. Hindsight’s obviously 20/20, but I wouldn’t change anything. I attacked and that’s what happens.”
But she had high hopes for the Super G and was eager to kick off these Olympics with a cleaner race. She entered Saturday’s event ranked No. 10 in the World Cup’s Super G standings and had competed in five Super G events this season, winning on Dec. 16 in Val d’Isere, France. But her best race in the other four was a sixth-place finish on Jan. 21 in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
Vonn was trying to become the first female racer to win Olympic gold in both downhill and the Super G. She was the downhill champion at the Vancouver Games, where she scored her bronze medal in the Super G. The Super G was added to the Olympic program in 1988 and is a speed event that requires bigger turns — and thus less speed — than downhill. No American woman has won gold in the Super G since Picaboo Street at the 1998 Games.
“All you can do is prepare your best, give your best, and at the end of the day I’m going to go home and be happy with myself because there’s nothing more I could have done,” Vonn said.