I gave it my all today. —U.S. skier Lindsey Vonn
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — If anyone is evidence that desire and results don’t always match, it’s the most successful alpine skier in U.S. history, Lindsey Vonn.
“It’s been really hard for me not to get emotional for so many reasons, especially because of my grandfather,” a tearful Vonn said after she won bronze in the downhill Wednesday morning, earning her third Olympic medal of her illustrious career. “I wanted to win so much because of him, but I still think I made him proud.”
Vonn has spent eight years fighting through injuries, disappointments and controversies to earn the 100 seconds of Olympic downhill competition in the mountains of Pyeongchang.
“I gave it my all today,” she said after earning a time of 1:39.69, just .47 of a second behind gold medalist and current World Cup leader Sofia Goggia, Italy, and her time of 1:39.22. For most of the race, Vonn looked like she might earn silver, but then Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel laid down a beauty of a run that put her in second (1:39.31), as she finished just .09 behind Goggia.
Vonn was nostalgic, grateful, tearful and playful in her post-race interview.
“I gave it my best shot,” she said of coming back from eight years of injuries and setbacks that caused her to miss the 2014 Olympics. “I tried so hard, worked my butt off, and I’m so proud to have competed with such amazing girls, my teammates. We help each other. Most us us have been injured pretty severely, and I’m so proud and happy to have been training with them. It’s been fun.”
The U.S. women showed their skill on the icy downhill course on a cold, clear morning.
Alice McKennis finished fifth (1:40.24), while Breezy Johnson was seventh (1:40.34), and Laurenne Ross ended up in 15th place (1:41.10).
Vonn broke down in a pre-competition press conference when talking about how much she wanted to win for her grandfather, Don Kildow, who taught her to ski as a child growing up in Minnesota. A veteran of the Korean War, she’d planned to bring him with her to the Olympics in South Korea, but he passed away on Nov. 1, 2017 — just months before Vonn became a U.S. Olympian for the fourth time in her career.
Her helmet bore his initials, and she said, throughout the week leading up to the race, that she knew he’d take care of her when it came time to race.
“I want so badly to do well for him,” she said in her arrival press conference, where she choked back emotion trying to talk about skiing to honor him. “And I miss him so much. He’s been such a big part of my life, and I really hoped he would be alive to see me, and I know he’s watching, and I know he’s going to help me. I’m going to win for him.”
He would, she said after the race, hopefully be proud of the effort she gave in the same place where he served with the Army Corps of Engineers, building roads and military facilities, sometimes behind enemy lines, according to his obituary.
“I thought I executed the line really well on the whole course, perhaps too well,” she said afterward. “I tried too hard to stay on the perfect line. But I’ve got no regrets.”
Vonn said it was difficult to contemplate the reality that Wednesday’s race was her last.
“It’s sad,” she said, overwhelmed with emotion. “It’s my last downhill. I wish I could keep going. I’m having so much fun, and I love what I do. But my body just can’t take another four years. But I’m proud to be competing for my country, giving it all and proud to come away with a medal.”
Despite being the best alpine skier the U.S. has ever produced, she still feels the pressure of trying to prove herself on the Olympic stage as she had just two medals in four Olympics before entering the start house for Wednesday’s downhill race.
Vonn is, without question, the most successful skier the United States has ever produced. She’s won four overall World Cup titles, eight downhill championships and five super-g titles, and of the women with the most podium finishes, Vonn is the only active skier, and she leads the list with 135. She also leads top 10 finishes, and is the only active skier on that list, with 211 top 10s.
According to FIS ladies’ super ranking, Vonn is statistically the sport’s best female skier in downhill, in super g and overall.
She owns the most World Cup race wins with 70, and after winning bronze, she said that while she may not have another Olympics in her, she will continue competing until she passes the skier who has the most overall victories — man or woman — Ingemar Stenmark, Sweden, who has 86 victories.
Despite her success and mentoring of other women on the ski team, as well as extensive charity work, Vonn has also been a lightning rod for controversy. She incurred the wrath of Twitter critics and trolls when she said she would “absolutely not” visit the White House if the U.S. Olympic Team was invited after the Games.
“I want to represent our country well,” she told CNN in an interview in December. “I don’t think that there are a lot of people currently in our government that do that.”
That made her the subject of social media criticism, with some even suggesting her failure to medal in an earlier race had something to do with her opinions.
She, however, said she was asked her opinion and just shared it honestly.
“It’s not necessarily my place to be sticking my nose in politics, but as an athlete,” she said after a training run last week. “I do have a voice. I may not be as vocal right now with my opinions, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve won, you know? I haven’t changed my mind.”
Vonn's grandfather may not be in the stands, but her entire family was at the Jeongseon Alpine Center, cheering her on.
"We're really happy," said Karin Kildow. "It was a lot of buildup, so much pressure. We're really proud of her no matter what she did or does. We're always so proud of her. She works so hard. We're so happy. This is the first time I think our whole family is here together, so it's a special one."
According to her sister, Laura Kildow, the color of the medal is unimportant.
"It's an amazing comeback, what she's done," Laura said. And whether Vonn might actually make one more Olympic run, her sisters were uncertain because Vonn is so determined, so relentless.
"Never say last with Lindsey," Laura said, "but most likely."