While she fell slightly short of her goal, the decorated American skier earned bronze in the event — and medaling for the first time in eight years moved her to tears.
“It’s so rewarding,” she told NBC of earning bronze. “Of course I would have liked a gold medal, but this is amazing and I am so proud.”
“I gave it my best shot,” she also said as her voice broke. “I worked my butt off.”
Vonn, 33, also said it was emotional to think that this will likely be her last Olympic downhill appearance ever.
“It’s been a run ride,” she said, adding. “It’s sad. This is my last downhill. I wish I could keep going. I have so much fun, I love what I do, but my body probably can’t take another four years.”
With her good friend Sofia Goggia of Italy sitting in first with 1:39:22, Vonn scored a 1:39:69 to place her in second in the downhill final with about 30 skiers left. But she was later bumped to third following Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel, who delivered her personal best downhill time ever, scoring 1:39.31.
“I skied a great race today. Sofia just skied better than I did,” Vonn told NBC after she and Goggia competed, but before Mowinckel came down the hill.
Vonn also admitted the personal significance of the race was not lost on her as she competed.
“It was tough to contemplate this being my last Olympic downhill race. I struggled to try and keep the emotions together, but I left it all on the mountain like I said I would and I’m proud of my performance,” she also said.
Vonn returned to slopes on Wednesday morning (Tuesday night stateside) just days after placing sixth in her first Winter Games performance in more than eight years.
The disappointing showing in the Super-G placed immense pressure on Vonn — the most decorated female skier of all time — to earn a medal in her signature event, the downhill, the second of only three events she’s competing in at the Games.
At 33 years old, Vonn’s only Olympic gold has come from winning the downhill event at the 2010 games in Vancouver (where she also earned a bronze in the Super-G). Vonn did not defend her title at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi due to a knee injury.
Leading up to the event, Vonn earned the fastest time in Sunday’s training run, and with Mikaela Shiffrin — the 22-year-old skiing phenom who won gold in her 2018 Olympic debut but failed to medal in her specialty — dropping out to concentrate on the combined event later this week, the chances seemed high Vonn could nab a medal for Team USA.
After the race, Shiffin tweeted congratulations to Vonn for winning bronze.
Even without Shiffrin in the mix, it was expected that Goggia and Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein would be tough competition.
Vonn went seventh in the downhill final, following Goggia and Liechtenstein—a change of pace from her going first in the Super-G. With her top rivals going before her, she knew exactly the time she had to get to put her in place for a medal.
Just a day before the event, Vonn— who has won 81 World Cup titles over the course of her career — posted a series tweets that expressed how important her showing in the downhill final would be, since it was likely her last Olympic showing in the event for her career.
“Tomorrow I will push out of the starting gate in what will most likely be my last Olympic Downhill race,” she wrote. “I know everyone expects a lot from me, and I expect even more of myself… However, there’s only one thing I can guarantee; I will give everything I have tomorrow. Count on it.”
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Vonn is no stranger to overcoming the odds, having recovered from a number of injuries throughout her career — including two torn ACLs, two concussions and multiple broken bones. There was even a time where competing in PyeongChang seemed unlikely, after she crashed while training in Colorado in November 2016. She fractured the humerus bone in her right arm, which left her unable to move her right hand and her career seemed in jeopardy. She didn’t fully recover until June of this year, just in time to prepare for the Winter Games in PyeongChang.
She qualified for Team USA just last month, and has since said she is competing on behalf of her beloved late grandfather, whom she calls her “guardian angel.”
Vonn competed in the downhill with her grandfather’s initials on her helmet, and told NBC after the race that despite falling short of winning gold, “I still think I made him proud.”
After failing to medal in the Super-G, Vonn took to Twitter to express her disappointment while keeping a positive tone.
“I’m proud of the way I skied and how I attacked the course,” Vonn wrote. “I gave it my all and came up short. That’s life.”
But if dealing with the loss wasn’t enough, Vonn was taunted by supporters of President Donald Trump after posting her tweet, seemingly because of her criticism of the administration late last year. The attacks even prompted former Olympic soccer player Julie Foudy to come to the skier’s defense:
Vonn replied back thanking Foudy for the support, adding: “I work hard and try to be the best person I can be. If they don’t like me their loss I guess.”
As of Wednesday, Vonn is scheduled to face Mikaela Shiffrin in the women’s alpine combined event on Thursday, which will include a downhill run (Vonn’s specialty) and a slalom run (Shiffrin’s specialty).
Though she is facing dozens of younger competitors in these Olympics, Vonn has said she doesn’t see her age as a problem.
“I have a lot more experience. I’ve been through this a few times, and I’ve already won Olympic gold, so I’m not nervous,” Vonn said on the Today show. “I don’t feel the pressure, I know the routine. And I think being older gives me an advantage, so I’m not worried about the young guns just yet.”
She added: “I’m mentally stronger, I believe in myself a lot more, and I know what my body is capable of.”
With only one more event to go, the world is waiting to see if the greatest female skier of all time will have a (potential) fairy tale Olympic finale for the ages.
The Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.