WHISTLER, British Columbia - Lindsey Vonn never got the message.
Right before Vonn left the starting gate in Saturday’s Olympic super-G, her husband-coach-adviser, Thomas, tried to radio her with a suggestion to change tactics.
That’s because several minutes earlier, when five of the first 11 skiers crashed on a shade-filled course the Vonns already suspected was designed specifically to trouble Lindsey, they agreed it would make sense to ease up a bit.
But when the racer right before Vonn made the morning’s first truly clean run as the sun began to peek out from behind the mountain, Thomas realized his wife needed to charge all the way down. It was too late. She slowed and finished third behind Austria’s Andrea Fischbacher and Slovenia’s Tina Maze, adding the super-G bronze to her downhill gold at these Winter Games.
Vonn was convinced she could have — should have, really — won a second gold.
“Once I passed the tricky sections, I think I let off the gas pedal a little bit. I just didn’t continue with that aggression all the way to the finish,” the two-time World Cup overall champion said. “That’s where I lost the race.”
Fischbacher turned in what pretty much everyone was calling the run of her life, in 1 minute, 20.14 seconds. Maze (it’s pronounced MAH-zeh) was 0.49 slower and earned Slovenia’s first silver in any sport at a Winter Olympics, while Vonn was 0.74 behind the champion for a record seventh U.S. Alpine medal here.
She had no problem navigating a sharp right turn about midway through, but then gave away nearly half a second on the bottom section.
“I wasn’t pushing myself as hard as I could have,” Vonn explained, adding that her bruised right shin was sore but didn’t hamper her. “I just got content, and that’s why I’m not on the top step today.”
Teammates and competitors agreed. Among those who called Vonn’s run “conservative” were Julia Mancuso, the American who already has two silvers at Whistler but was ninth Saturday, and Maria Riesch, the German who is Vonn’s close friend and was eighth in the super-G after winning the super-combined Friday.
Maze offered another perspective: “She’s human, too.”
Thomas Vonn suggested something else was afoot.
The course was set by a coach from Fischbacher’s team — the International Ski Federation holds a random draw that gives countries with more top skiers a better chance of being picked — and Vonn’s husband said he heard the Austrians’ aim was to design something particularly tough on the American.
“People are always going to search for a way to knock you down,” Thomas Vonn said. “They’re going to look for that little piece of kryptonite.”
Austrian coach Juergen Kriechbaum, who set the super-G course, called the accusation “stupid.”
“Maybe he’s not happy,” Kriechbaum told The Associated Press, “but that’s not my problem. The more difficult the course, the more it should favor the best skiers.”
That clearly includes Vonn.
Her 31 career World Cup victories are the most by a U.S. woman, she won the downhill and super-G world titles a year ago, and she was more than a half-second fastest in the Olympic downhill Wednesday.
“She’s always first in World Cup, and she’s always leading,” Maze said, “and it’s kind of annoying to be at the start, knowing she’ll probably be first.”
Which is why Vonn arrived in Canada on everyone’s mind, a main part of NBC’s promotion of the Olympics and considered a candidate to bring home several medals, including two or three golds.
She was supposed to be Vancouver’s answer to Beijing’s Michael Phelps. On Saturday, Vonn referred to that as “hype” that she “never really bought into.”
Her husband said she was down in the dumps after hooking a gate and failing to finish the second leg of Thursday’s super-combined, a race she led after the first leg. Not only no gold — no medal at all. But he reminded her that she already owned a gold and should be pleased with that.
“It’s all icing now,” said Vonn’s mom, Linda Krohn.
So if Vonn was disappointed with Saturday’s result, she refused to let it show. She said she was as proud of her bronze as her gold and noted that the two shades almost look alike.
Actually, that bronze barely was hers. The 30th skier down the slope, Johanna Schnarf of Italy, nearly bumped Vonn off the podium but ended up 0.11 behind for fourth place.
“It’s tough when you come into an Olympics, and people basically hung medals around your neck,” Thomas Vonn said, “and they’re like, ’Now go ski and earn ’em.’ That’s a tough thing to deal with.”
His wife probably will take Sunday off to rest the shin she hurt in pre-Olympic training Feb. 2. She plans to race in Wednesday’s giant slalom and Friday’s slalom, the last two women’s events.
“The five-gold-medal Phelps comparison was never realistic. ... It’d be like winning the lottery and (saying), ’Yes, I knew I was going to win the $40 million jackpot.’ That’s just not how it happens,” Thomas Vonn said. “She’s certainly capable of getting podiums in those events. But her chances are definitely diminished when she hasn’t had any training, and it’s been all about just trying to put Band-Aids on it to get these races through.”
For Fischbacher, meanwhile, this was her first gold at an Olympics or world championships, although she did earn the super-G bronze at the 2009 worlds. When she crossed the finish line, two racers after Vonn, she looked up at the scoreboard to see her placement and was literally blown away, stumbling backward into the padding around the finish area and nearly tumbling over.
Fischbacher narrowly missed out on a medal in the downhill, finishing 0.03 out of third place. She cried that day and, as she described it, “I had anger in the stomach.”
To make amends, she decided, it would be necessary to put together a “crazy run” in the super-G.
“I was ready,” Fischbacher said, “to push myself to attack from start to finish.”
Vonn wished she’d done the same.