PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—Just past noon Monday (Sunday night in the U.S.), Lindsey Vonn was laughing. Not just laughing, but cackling. A little while earlier she had completed the second of three official training runs in advance of Wednesday’s downhill, finishing third despite largely experimenting with her potential racing line and only occasionally punching the gas pedal. She is 33 years old, the best women’s ski racer in history and a major threat to win a medal—possibly gold—in the downhill. She would become the second woman to win the Olympic downhill twice (Vonn took gold in 2010 in Vancouver, and Katja Seizinger of Germany won in 1994 and ’98).
But that’s only part of the story of the moment because well, because: 2018. On Dec. 7, Vonn did an interview with CNN.
CNN: “You’ve previously competed at three Olympic Games, under two presidents. How would it feel competing at an Olympic Games for a United States whose president is Donald Trump?”
Vonn: “Well, I hope to represent the people of the United States, not the president.... I take the Olympics very seriously, and what they mean and what they represent. What walking under our flag means at the opening ceremony. I want to represent our country well. I don’t think that there are a lot of people currently in our government that do that.”
Vonn was later asked if she would visit the White House with other Olympians and said, “Absolutely not. No.”
Okay, you know where this is going. Vonn was pummeled by Trump supporters on social media and harangued by Trump-leaning media. As a wealthy, successful and attractive professional athlete, she made a convenient villain. When I visited her at her home in Vail on Dec. 21, for a feature story in Sports Illustrated, Vonn said, “People were calling me un-American or some crazy liberal, which I’m actually not,” says Vonn. “I was taken aback by the negativity. I love my country. I’m proud of the flag and our troops. Just because I disagree with some things doesn’t make me less American.” Okay, we know this makes perfect sense, but we also know it leads nowhere good because the political digital underbelly doesn’t traffic in subtlety of any kind.
On Saturday morning in South Korea, Vonn raced in the super-G, a high-speed hybrid of downhill and giant slalom. Through the arcane rules of the sport, she drew racing bib No. 1, which meant that she would get the fastest, hardest surface on which to ski, but also she would not benefit from seeing how the course was playing by watching other skiers. In fact, there are no training runs before the super-G, only a course inspection. After the race Vonn would say, “I thought, it’s either going to be really good, or really bad.’’
In fact, it was both. Vonn skied the top of the course brilliantly, but made a whopper of a mistake 15 seconds from the finish, hanging on her left ski too long before transitioning to the next gate. It was at least a 0.50-second mistake, and maybe a one-second mistake. She finished tied for sixth and missed the gold medal by 0.38 seconds and the bronze by 0.27 seconds. Later, she would say, “I’m, proud of my performance, I left it all out on the hill.’’ She gets no sympathy: You have to ski all the way to the bottom to win. Vonn knows that.
The story of the day became the remarkable performance by 22-year-old Czech racer Ester Ledecka, a world champion in parallel giant slalom snowboarding, who took the gold medal from the distant outpost of the No. 26 starting spot. She was such an unlikely winner that NBC had cut away from its live telecast before her run. Ledecka was so shocked by seeing the green No. 1 next to her name on the scoreboard that she just stood, mouth agape, beyond the finish line, waiting for officials to correct her time.
But there was another story. Here is how it unfolded from my perspective. After Vonn’s mistake late in her run, like any sportswriter with a smartphone, I Tweeted about it: “Obviously a massive mistake by Lindsey Vonn. She was fast on top, but lost a ton of time. Hard to imagine a good outcome here.’’
Responses came quickly. I’m not naming the accounts, because why do that?
HA HA HA GOOD
She deserves to lose. She made a point of being political
Her biggest mistake was the WH comment. Karma is a bitch.
It was all very obvious and predictable, and frankly, boring. But let’s step back and state two truths: 1) Vonn finished tied for sixth in the Olympic super-G not because of anything she said in her life, but because she hung on her left ski too long and barely made a gate. Simple. 2) On Dec. 7, Vonn was asked a question. She answered it honestly. Hold that thought.
Again, you know what’s next. Vonn’s own social media feeds were flooded with sulphurous variations of the little responses that I got. Dozens of them. People defended her afterward, and Vonn thanked some of those people. Vonn was back on skis the next morning, in the first of the three downhill training runs. Afterward, she stopped to answer questions from the media about the trolling. Monday she raced again and afterward, wearing aviators and a blue U.S. ski team hat, she talked to the U.S. media. She knows most of those who were waiting for her. So she was laughing. Somebody asked what was so funny. “I’m always funny,’’ she said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.’’ She was loose, unbothered.
Two questions in she was asked about getting trolled by Trump supporters. (Okay, I asked the question, but somebody was going to ask.) She said, “There’s of course going to be people that hate me and hope I ski off a cliff and die. [One of the December trolls said exactly that.] But you know, that’s fine. I’m not going to do that. It’s people sitting behind a computer and they will say anything. You take it for what it’s worth and at some point, you just laugh because it’s ridiculous.’’
Vonn is very active on social media. She posts inspirational sayings, she posts about her three dogs, she tags celebrities. In South Korea, while waiting for her races to begin, she posted—cheekily—about seeking a date for Valentine’s Day. It’s all pretty harmless. She says the trolling will not drive her away from Twitter or Instagram. “That’s what bullies want you to do,’’ she says. “They want to defeat you. And I’m not defeated. I’m the same. I stand by my values. I’m not going to back down. I may not be as vocal right now with my opinions”— she is in the middle of her last Olympic Games—“but that doesn’t mean they’ve won. I haven’t changed my mind.’’
This is where I am supposed to express outrage at the decay of our society and the absence of polite discourse in the age of Trump. F--- that. Yes, it’s outrageous. And it’s pathetic that humans with double-digit numbers of followers and bots from some troll factory in St. Peterburg are staining human existence. But at some point it becomes white noise. And Vonn is right: You have to just laugh because laughter castrates the rabble.
At the same time, some say it’s outrageous that the trolls who are stalking Vonn are encouraging athletes from other countries to defeat a red, white and blue American. I’m all for supporting U.S. athletes, but as a sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympics and hundreds of non-American athletes, that attitude corrupts the purity of sports. You don’t think a lot of Americans rooted for the ebullient Usain Bolt, a Jamaican? Even when he was racing against Americans? I’m enthralled by watching Austrian skier Marcel Hirscher in PyeongChang; he’s an artist on Atomics. Vonn is the co-favorite in the downhill here. I’ve made lifelong friendships with foreign athletes I’ve profiled, wonderful people from wonderful places. The other co-favorite is Sofia Goggia, a delightful Italian skier. If Goggia wins, you know who will be the first person to embrace her at the finish? Lindsey Vonn.
To be sure, sports doesn’t deserve the ugliness of our most vile political wrangling. Back to this: Vonn was asked a question and answered it. That’s what professional athletes are supposed to do. Vonn has been a ski racer since she was a teenager. She is, above all things, likeable. She couldn’t be more Minnesotan if she were cast in the next season of Fargo. But also, she went through a public divorce and dated Tiger Woods—Live, on TMZ! She’s not weak, and while she’s happy to accept our support against the haters, she really doesn’t need it. She’s a big girl.
On Wednesday morning, Vonn will race her last Olympic downhill. “I’m trying not to think of that,’’ she said Monday. There’s a good chance she will finish first or win a medal. And always a chance she will not, because snow and ice are slippery and skis are long and thin. That’s why we keep score.
Either way, the trolls will come for her. And she will take it. And she will laugh. Because she is one of the greatest skiers in history—successful and famous and happy. And they are nothing.