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No storybook ending for Vonn, but Shiffrin wins silver in Alpine combined

  • Author: Bill Pennington, The New York Times
  • Updated: February 22
  • Published February 22

Feb 22, 2018; Pyeongchang, South Korea; Mikaela Shiffrin (USA) competes in the women’s alpine combined slalom event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games at Jeongseon Alpine Centre. Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The showdown between Lindsey Vonn and her heir apparent, Mikaela Shiffrin, has been a dominant subplot throughout the Pyeongchang Olympics, and it was in the air again on the final run of the last individual Alpine race of the 2018 Winter Games.

The moment was, in fact, a scene nearly a year in the making, one whose flash point came last March when Shiffrin, 22, ascended to the title of world's best women's skier — a designation the 33-year-old Vonn had passionately guarded as her own for many years.

Vonn and Shiffrin, each an Olympic champion, had rarely raced against each other in any setting, let alone at the Olympics, the biggest stage in ski racing. But late Thursday afternoon, as an approaching snowstorm cast a shadow over her, Vonn stood in the start house for almost certainly the last time at the Winter Games with a chance to join Shiffrin on the podium — even, possibly, to grab the gold medal and push Shiffrin, sitting in second place, to the bronze.

In that instant, Vonn was leading the race, the women's Alpine combined. There were 52 gates and about 700 yards separating her from the finish line.

Vonn charged forward, but a dozen seconds later she was reeling. Struggling to regain her balance, she missed a gate. Vonn skid to a stop at the side of the racecourse, her Olympic journey here, and likely forever, concluded, a torch passed.

At the bottom of the mountain, the surprise winner of the event, Michelle Gisin of Switzerland, celebrated her gold medal. Her two-run combined time of 2:20.90 was nearly a second better than Shiffrin, the pre-race favorite who seemed both happy and relieved to have earned a silver medal. Wendy Holdener, Gisin's teammate, won the bronze.

The outcome rewarded Shiffrin, who won the giant slalom last week, with her second medal of these games. Shiffrin also won a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Games, making her one of only four American Alpine racers to have won three or more Olympic medals. She has won her three Alpine Olympic medals at a younger age than anyone else in the group.

In the aftermath of Thursday's race, with the Pyeongchang Olympics entering its final weekend, Vonn and Shiffrin were each trying to take measure of their experience here. Linked throughout the games, they had entered with expectations as disparate as their strengths.

Vonn, who has for years dominated the riskier, high-speed races of downhill and super-G, was hoping to match her signature Olympic moment — a downhill gold at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Major knee injuries had kept her from the Sochi Games four years ago.

"To return to the Olympics was the biggest goal and that's why I've had a smile on my face every day I've been in South Korea," said Vonn, who won a bronze medal in Wednesday's downhill. "I accomplished what I set out to do."

Shiffrin came to Pyeongchang with a more ambitious goal: to win three or more events, a reasonable expectation since she was the clear favorite in two and a top contender in a third. She fell short. But on Thursday, Shiffrin said her greatest ambition was to prove that she was an elite racer in each of the five Alpine disciplines.

Bad weather disrupted Shiffrin's grandest plans from the beginning, postponing each of her first two races.

"It was like someone was playing a game of ping pong with my brain," she said of the postponements in the first week here.

Eventually, Shiffrin raced, and she began with an electric performance as she won her third best event, the giant slalom.

The next day, she was as languid as she was dynamic the previous day. A three-time world champion in the slalom, she failed to defend her Olympic title in the event, finishing fourth.

That result sounded some alarms, and Shiffrin's coaches grew concerned that she needed more time to rest because the weather postponements had compressed all five Alpine races into a much briefer window. Shiffrin withdrew from two races, the super-G and the downhill, to focus the Alpine combined, an event that is one run of downhill combined with one run of slalom.

It was a race that would pit Vonn, the queen of the downhill for most of the last decade, against Shiffrin, the best women's slalom skier since 2013.

Vonn, as expected, won the downhill portion of the event Thursday morning, leading the field by 0.74 seconds. Gisin was third. Shiffrin, who defeated Vonn in a World Cup downhill this season and had made great strides in the event, left the gate soon after and seemed on unsteady footing almost immediately. She then made a major mistake traversing a critical section on the racecourse and lost much of the velocity she would need to stay close to Vonn. Sixth after the downhill portion of the competition, she was nearly 2 seconds behind Vonn and 1.21 seconds behind Gisin.

Feb 22, 2018; Pyeongchang, South Korea; Mikaela Shiffrin’s (USA) reflection is seen in the goggles of Lindsey Vonn (USA) after the the women’s alpine combined slalom event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games at Jeongseon Alpine Centre. Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Since last year, when a World Cup race took place on the same racecourse here, Shiffrin's coaches had been encouraged by the layout of the slalom hill that would make up the second part of the Alpine combined. It had a daunting, steep pitch, which would usually favor a more technically gifted slalom skier like Shiffrin.

But the racecourse set Thursday afternoon lacked enough challenge to give Shiffrin any noticeable advantage. While equitable to all the racers in the field, the course-setter Jean Philippe Vulliet had set up a series of gates in a relatively straight line — without the kind of offset gates that lead the racers back and forth across the hill.

Shiffrin struggled to build any aggressive momentum in the early and middle sections of the course. In the final 100 yards, which was the steepest section, she charged, made up nearly a second on her competitors and vaulted into first place.

Her stay atop the leaderboard was short-lived. Gisin, whose best World Cup slalom result this season was a 10th-place finish, followed with a sparkling, confident run and roared into a lead she would not relinquish.

A smiling Shiffrin happily accepted her silver medal and moved quickly to acknowledge the bigger picture of her Pyeongchang Olympic experience.

"First of all, it's pretty nice to have two more Olympic medals," she said. "And my other big goal was to prove that I could branch out and not just be a slalom skier. For me, it is huge to know that I can now put down fast times in pretty much any event and contend for medals in multiple events.

"And I get to take a breath and celebrate my gold and silver medals. And that's pretty good."

Neither Vonn nor Shiffrin were particularly interested in discussing their tacit, personal rivalry. After the race, they briefly hugged at the finish.

Vonn was focusing on her approach to what she repeatedly called her final Olympic race.

"I wanted to go out guns blazing and I did," she said. "The last run came up short, but I knew it was going to take a miracle for me at that point."

Vonn did reflect on what the future might hold for Shiffrin.

"It's incredible what she's able to accomplish, and she's so young," Vonn said. "She could ski for another 10 years and have a lot more medals and a lot more World Cup wins."

Vonn then paused ever so briefly to look around the finish area. With a setting sun and a heavy snow beginning to fall, she was getting ready to exit the Olympic stage.

"But as I saw in my career, things can change quite quickly," Vonn said. "You never know. That's why you have to appreciate every moment that you have here."

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