PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—This is a story about makeup. Check that: It is a story in which makeup provides a tiny window into the joyous truth of the Olympic Games. It is a story about the fastest women’s ski racer in history, an American who did not ski quite so fast on this day. It is also a story about a 22-year-old Czech racer who is the first athlete in history to compete in both snowboarding and Alpine skiing at the same Olympics. And on this day, the snowboarder skied faster than all of the full-time skiers, and won a gold medal.
So it is worth remembering that, try as we might, we cannot transform the Olympic Games into a scripted television show. Yet we do try. There are redemption narratives and prodigy narratives and world domination narratives, lined up in the months before the Games like movie pitches delivered to Hollywood executives. And then on one Friday night, somewhere in the darkness, a cauldron is lit and soon after, the narratives are cast into the wind, replaced with the often inscrutable, always affirming reality of the Games themselves.
On Saturday afternoon at the Jeongseon Alpine Center, a mountain resort south of PyeongChang that hosts the speed events (downhill and super-G) of the Alpine competition, this vision unfolded after the completion of the super-G: U.S. racer Lindsey Vonn, 33, the greatest women’s ski racer in history, with 81 World Cup victories, walked through a gauntlet of post-race interviews, explaining the disappointment of a sixth-place finish that had been caused by a catastrophic mistake less than 15 seconds from the end.
Vonn, who has overcome numerous serious injuries in a long career, some of which have left her either unable to compete or unable to compete at her best at all but one Olympics, skied bravely from the all-or-nothing No. 1 starting spot (more on that below). But she became too aggressive and nearly missed a gate. It cost her significant time. She finished tied for sixth, 0.38 seconds from the gold and 0.27 seconds from bronze. “I’m proud of my performance,’’ she said afterward. “I gave it everything I had. I left it all out on the hill, which I knew I would. I just made one mistake, and it cost me a medal.’’
She spoke with an assurance honed over a decade and a half in the public eye, with class and confidence. And she wore makeup, because she understands the importance of her appearance in front of the camera for her fans and for her sponsors. Not only is there nothing wrong with this, it’s smart and admirable. She was ready.
A few minutes later, Ester Ledecka took a seat on the dais reserved for gold medalists. Ledecka is a two-time world champion in parallel giant slalom snowboarding and also a World Cup ski racer, a mind-boggling combination that rattles the underpinnings of winter sports, right at the intersection of floppy jackets and speed suits. Here she had started No. 26, a position that approximates her world ranking and from which it is often very difficult to win because of deteriorating conditions.
In her press conference, Ledecka wore tinted Poc goggles, and did not remove them as she answered questions. There was a reason: “Because I was not as prepared as the other girls…. At the ceremony,’’ she said, in slightly accented English. “And I don’t have no makeup.’’ There was laughter, and Ledecka laughed hardest of all. It was a delightful moment, cutting straight to the beauty of the Games.
One great skier, always prepared for the limelight, explaining defeat.
Another skier, so unprepared for the limelight that she expected her finishing time to be adjusted, explaining victory.
Or as Italian racer Sofia Goggia, who like Vonn made one killer mistake, said, “I love this surprise that sport can provide. We [assume] so much is already known, but in life, sometimes you [get] surprises.’’
Or Vonn: “At the Olympics, a lot of weird stuff happens.’’
For many, and especially for Americans, the pre-ordained story of the day was Vonn’s return to the Olympic podium eight years after she won two medals in Vancouver. She had been weakened by a fall during a training run at the 2006 Olympics in Turin and missed the 2014 Olympics in Sochi with a knee injury. PyeongChang would be her last Games. Goggia was among the other contenders in what was expected to be a wide-open race.
Vonn was assigned the No. 1 starting position. In an arcane process, the top 10 skiers in the World Cup rankings—the so-called World Cup start list—choose odd numbered bibs 1 through 19 based on their rankings. Vonn is ranked No. 10 in super-G, a hybrid of downhill and giant slalom, and when her turn came, No. 1 was the only digit remaining. Starting first can be an advantage: The course is clean, hard and fast. But it can also be a disadvantage: Unlike in downhill, super-G racers do not get training runs on the course so their only exposure to the track comes in a morning inspection.
Vonn said, “I thought, it’s either going to be really good, or really bad. And it didn’t turn out quite like I had hoped.’’
Vonn skied dynamically off the top and seemed to be heading for a medal-contending finish, but near the bottom, as she rolled over a rise, she carried too much speed and nearly missed a right-footed turn. She corrected, but lost too much speed. Six skiers later, she was in fourth place. Goggia said, “I saw her on TV [at the top of the hill]. I knew she wouldn’t have won a medal.’’
Vonn said, “I felt awesome. I was prepared. I had a great inspection. Everything lined up except one turn. That’s ski racing.’’
Behind Vonn, accomplished skiers filled the podium. Anna (Fenninger) Veith of Austria skied into first by 0.10 seconds in front of Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein. Laura Gut of Switzerland was 0.01 behind Weirather. As the bib numbers reached into the 20s, the race seemed to have been decided. Suddenly, as other racers did media interviews in the sunlight, Ledecka rolled down the mountainside. She seemed an unlikely contender, having never finished in the Top 10 of a World Cup super-G. She has been a better snowboarder than skier, and in fact, was skiing with a pair of racing skis pulled from the Atomic competition pool, like a pro golfer snagging a driver from the Callaway van. (There were reports that Ledecka had borrowed skis from Mikaela Shiffrin of the U.S. Shffrins’s mother and coach, Eileen, said this was not true.) Asked afterward, Ledecka said, “I’m not sure which skis I’m using. I hope mine. Actually I always choose some skis which were already riding with some other girls, maybe from past seasons, because it’s better for me because I don’t do as many runs on them because I do also snowboarding and it’s quite difficult for the speed demons to have the good skis when you’re not riding them as often.”
When Ledecka slammed her skis sideways in the finish corral, the scoreboard illuminated her time in green numbers and flashed a huge No. 1, meaning that she had taken the lead from Veith. Ledecka did not celebrate, but instead stood transfixed on the scoreboard, her mouth agape. “I thought this was a mistake,’’ she said. “I was looking at the board and I thought, are they going to put a couple more seconds up there? And I was just waiting and watching and waiting until they would change the time. And nothing was happening and everyone was screaming.’’
Vonn and Goggia joined other skiers in the media area, looking at the board with equal surprise. Ledecka has scorched portions of training runs, but never an entire hill. “She has had so many fast parts in training,’’ Goggia said. “But she never put it together. I’m happy for her… and kind of surprised.’’
Ledecka said in her press conference, “I don’t want to be rude, you are all great. I didn’t really expect that I would be sitting here. I already should have like three [training] runs in snowboard [practice] now.’’ Ledecka’s coach is 37-year-old American Justin Reiter, who lives in Steamboat Springs, Colo. (Ledecka trains in the Czech Republic.) “When Ester pulls out of the starting gate, she has a fire behind her. I didn’t know that this could be her first skiing podium, but I didn’t expect it.’’
Ledecka is expected to be among the favorites in parallel giant slalom snowboarding, which will be contested Thursday and Saturday in PyeongChang. She was asked if she might instead ski the downhill—in which Vonn will be a favorite—which is on Wednesday. (In theory she could do both, but that would disrupt her snowboard training—these are unique problems.) “For sure, the plan was to switch myself to snowboarding now,’’ said Ledecka. “So I think I will change for snowboard. But maybe my skiing coach will be a little bit pushy after today.’’
Her victory underscored a transcendent athleticism, as if a track and field Olympian had won a medal in cycling. And more: It showed that the often antithetical and warring sports of snowboarding and Alpine skiing are more alike than different, cultural values aside. Ledecky put it simply:
“Well, it’s down the hill for both of them.’’
For her, it’s down the hill. Fast.