In a contest featuring two of alpine skiing’s greatest athletes, only one could come out on top — and in this case, it was Mikaela Shiffrin.
Lindsey Vonn and Shiffrin faced off for the first — and last — time in the 2018 Winter Olympics on Thursday morning and afternoon (Wednesday night and Thursday morning stateside) in the women’s alpine skiing combined, a set of two races in which the fastest total time determines the winner.
Shiffrin earned silver, behind Switzerland’s Michelle Gisin. Vonn, who came on strong in the first of the two races, missed a gate in the second and did not finish.
“I hooked a tip which often happens,” she told reporters afterward. “I did that in the combined in the Olympics in Vancouver. So, that’s skiing.”
The combined race came earlier than expected after predicted high winds moved the event up by a day.
The competition pitted the Team USA members against one another and more than two dozen other racers in two runs featuring both of their individual strengths: downhill (Vonn’s specialty) and slalom (where Shiffrin excels).
“Slalom is tough for me,” Vonn said after failing to finish. “I fought really hard, but straddling is unfortunately something I do often, which is why I don’t ski the event any more.”
Still, she said, “I’ll take a lot of great memories with me. I’ve had such a great experience with my teammates here. When you’re older you have a different appreciation for life and the experiences you’ve had. I greatly appreciate my team, everyone who helped get me here, my friends and family. It’s been a great ride.”
Vonn looked fierce during her downhill run earlier Thursday, racing in 1:39:37 (as in less than two minutes) to put her in first place after 13 skiers.
Shiffrin was the 19th skier to go down the hill and ended the run 1.98 seconds behind Vonn after looking shaky coming out of the first traverse. She placed third in the slalom, helping lift her to second overall.
“It feels good. It’s a nice way to end the Olympics,” she told reporters. “I started off with a bang and ending with a medal on the podium is really cool.”
The combined served as both a competition and a passing of the torch. The 33-year-old Vonn — long considered the greatest female ski racer of all time, and the most decorated — has said the PyeongChang Olympics are likely her last, while 22-year-old Shiffrin is still early in her career but is already on a trajectory to potentially surpass Vonn’s 81 World Cup wins.
Vonn told NBC she felt “great” after the downhill, and her excitement was combatting any fatigue.
“My will is stronger than my body most of the time, so I think that’s helping me a lot,” she also said, and explained that she switched skis because the pair she wore the previous day got burnt out in that race.
Shiffrin, meanwhile, said she was glad she decided to skip the downhill event the previous night, noting to NBC that it was “definitely helpful not having a day of mentally stressing.”
“I’m feeling pretty fresh, more fresh than I expected to feel today,” added Shiffrin, who has been open about her battle with anxiety.
The two had been scheduled to go head-to-head in the downhill final earlier this week, but Shiffrin pulled out of the event due to weather changes and opted to concentrate on the combined event.
The move to sit out the downhill seemed like it would place Shiffrin in a good position to succeed in the combined event, especially in contrast to Vonn, as Shiffrin had more recovery time in between events (Vonn had less than 24 hours) and more time to prepare.
With Shiffrin being the best in the world in the alpine slalom, having won 26 of 32 World Cup slalom events before starting the Olympics, she was clearly a favorite finish atop the podium.
Both Shiffrin and Vonn were aiming to score their second medal of the South Korean Winter Olympics in the combined event. And with this being their final race, both hoped for a fitting finale to close out the Games.
While they have each medaled, they have also struggled at different points throughout these Games.
Shiffrin won gold in the giant slalom but finished fourth a day later in her next alpine skiing event, the slalom, coming in just eight-hundredths of a second from bronze.
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After her second run in the slalom, she told NBC Sports that she vomited before coming to the gates.
“It was kind of sudden,” she said. “It almost felt like a virus kind of puking, less about nerves.”
Vonn had a rougher start having failed to medal in her event, the Super-G. And while she held on to second place for a few minutes after her run in Wednesday’s downhill final, she didn’t hide her emotions as she buried her head in her hands when she saw herself slip from second to third.
Shiffrin was one of the first people to congratulate Vonn on her medal after that event.
In a post-race interview on Wednesday, Vonn seemed overjoyed that she was able to hang on to the bronze despite having the silver momentarily in her grasp.
“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 said as her voice broke. “I worked my butt off.”
There has been much speculation as to whether Vonn would come back for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, but she has given every indication that these will be the last. She reemphasized this in an emotional interview with NBC after finding out she had held on to third in the downhill.
Though Vonn has faced dozens of younger competitors, she’s 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.”
Vonn has every reason to hold her head high: She leaves Korea as the oldest female alpine skiing Olympic medalist in history.