WHISTLER, British Columbia -- It would inevitably to come to this -- a subjective judgment of whether Lindsey Vonn's Olympics have been successful or some other lesser adjective, on a sliding scale that runs dead south from there and ends with "disastrous." No need for suspense. Yes, Vonn's Games have absolutely been successful. Degrees of success are much more challenging to measure.
On Saturday morning Vonn, starting from the 17th position, skied a terrific -- though perilously cautious -- run to take the lead in the Olympic Super-G at Whistler. For a little less than four minutes she held in her hands a second gold medal, which would have made her the second U.S. ski racer in history to win two golds in the same Olympics -- or even an Olympic career (joining the late Andrea Mead Lawrence, who won slalom and giant slalom in 1952). Vonn screamed and pumped her right fist and in general behaved like she had won something. And she had.
But two skiers later came Andrea Fischbacher, a 24-year-old Austrian with two career World Cup victories (Vonn, a year older, has 31), with a clean, attacking run that crushed Vonn by three-quarters of a second. Three skiers after that Tina Maze, 26, from Slovenia, with five career World Cup podiums in Super-G (and zero victories), also passed Vonn. Like that, gold turned to silver and then to bronze. Even then, there was a scare from the No. 30 starter, Johanna Schnarf of Italy, who has never reached a podium in 69 World Cup starts. She missed taking down Vonn by just .11 of a second.
Here, then, is the running tally for Vonn: Three races, one gold (downhill), one bronze (Super-G), one crash (during the slalom run in combined). Is that successful? Hell yes. Is it successful, based on expectations? Possibly not, but that might say more about the expectations than the achievement. Vonn has two races remaining: The giant slalom on Wednesday, in which she has never been competitive with the top racers in the world; and then the slalom on Friday, in which she has been a medal contender on the World Cup but has done very little training in the last three weeks because of her hyper-publicized shin injury.
"To be honest, I'm not expecting much in the next two races," Vonn said after Saturday's race. "I'm going to give it my all, and maybe I can miraculously come up with something."
This will require an adjustment in thinking for anyone who expected Vonn to win, or even contend form five gold medals and become the Michael Phelps of these games. After yesterday's race Vonn's husband/coach/advisor Thomas Vonn, said, "The five-gold-medal Phelps comparison was never going to happen that way."
As Vonn spoke, I felt the need to do a conscience check, to autopsy my own role in setting expectations. Here is what I wrote about Vonn in a seven-page Sports Illustrated story before the start of the Games: "She will ski in all five Alpine racing disciplines and is the gold medal favorite in three (downhill, Super-G and combined) and a medal contender in a fourth." Looking back, I can live with that assessment. Never mentioned five gold medals, never even mentioned four. She was probably not really the favorite in combined; "among the favorites" would have been a better choice of words. Nitpicking.
(However, in the next paragraph I wrote that "Vonn's races stretch across a Phelpsian 13 days, giving NBC and its many media platforms the opportunity to transform her into a one-woman miniseries." The word Phelpsian was employed to describe her tightly packed race schedule, not her chances of winning gold medals, but the Phelps's name is there, so that's on me).
So back to the tally: One gold, one bronze. Her teammate Julia Mancuso has come up huge in these Games, with two silvers (one far behind Vonn in the downhill) to go with the gold she won in 2006 in Turin. Bode Miller has won a silver and a bronze, to go with his two silvers from 2002. Miller has three races left here and Mancuso has two. Neither could be considered a medal favorite in any of their remaining events, but Miller is always a danger in the combined (Sunday) and Mancuso is the defending gold medalist in the giant slalom (Wednesday).
Among the record-breaking seven medals won by the U.S. Alpine team, however, Vonn has the only gold, and it came in the marquee event. Plus, Vonn came here with all the pressure on her -- Miller had little and Mancuso none -- and an injured shin on top of that. You can argue the point, but she's still the skiing star of the Games. So far.
"I'm a double Olympic medalist, and that's a pretty cool thing to say," Vonn said after her race yesterday. "Olympic medals are hard to come by. I'm happy."
Back to Phelps for just a second. Swimming, even more than track and field track, is a relentlessly formful sport. The best man or woman usually wins. Sorry to keep quoting myself, but here is something I wrote in December in SI, when Vonn was tearing up the World Cup: " In Vonn's sport, sun, wind, melting snow and stray pebbles can play havoc with predictions. The best skier does not always win. But barely two months from the Olympics, Vonn is almost surely the best skier."
Saturday's Super-G was a great example of skiing's uncertainties. Mancuso was first out of the gate, sometimes an advantageous position, because you get a clean track and the opportunity to lay down a time for others to chase, but often not, because you get no course report from previous racers. On Saturday the race started at 10 a.m., earlier than other speed races at Whistler, leaving much of the course in shade. Mancuso made a huge mistake entering a left-footed turn on a face called the Frog Bank. "Without that mistake," she said, "I think I could have been in [contention], whether the light was flat or not."
Her lead held until Maria Riesch of Germany came down at No. 12 and passed her; Riesch was passed four skiers later by Elisabeth Goergl of Austria, setting the stage for Vonn.
One of the critical elements (among many) in Vonn's success has been a willingness to dial back her aggression ever so slightly. Thomas Vonn refers to it as skiing "90 percent." And often that's good enough to win. But when Vonn won the downhill three days earlier, she attacked the course, because Mancuso had skied so well in front of her. She fell in the combined slalom, when a slightly more cautious approach might have guaranteed her a medal, because, as she said that, "I was trying to win a ski race." (She reiterated that on Saturday: "I went down fighting," she said.)
On the night before the Super-G, the Vonns decided that Lindsey would again attack. But that plan began to alter as the race unfolded. "The conditions were changing so much," said Thomas Vonn, "It almost became one of those 90 percent decisions."
Vonn pushed hard early in the race and led Goergl's time by .71 at the second interval. That lead shrank to .65 at the third interval and just .26 at the bottom. Vonn's explanation essentially was that she dialed back her aggression in the lower part of the course. "Once I passed the tricky sections that gave the other girls so many problems, I just let off the gas pedal," she said after the race. "I didn't continue with that aggressiveness all the way to the finish. I wasn't as clean as I could have been on the bottom part, and that probably cost me the race."
It probably cost her the silver medal and nearly cost her the bronze, which would have turned celebration to misery. Vonn was faster than Maze with less than 20 seconds left in the race and still lost to her by .27. Fischbacher, however, was another story. She was leading Vonn at every interval after the first. "Lindsey was 90 percent on that bottom part, but I'm not sure that it would have even mattered," Thomas Vonn said. "Fischbacher was seven-tenths up." On this day, it's no lock that even Vonn's best would have beaten an opponent who skied the race of her life.
There's no shame in that. Just like there's no shame in bronze.