In a contest featuring two of alpine skiing’s greatest athletes, only one could come out the better — and it was Mikaela Shiffrin.
Lindsey Vonn and Shiffrin faced off for the first — and last — time in the 2018 Winter Olympics on Thursday morning and afternoon (Wednesday night and Thursday morning stateside) in the women’s alpine skiing combined, a set of two races in which the fastest total time determines the winner.
Shiffrin earned silver, behind Switzerland’s Michelle Gisin. Vonn, who had been well positioned for a podium after the first of the two races, missed a gate in the second and did not finish.
Their match-up came earlier than expected after predicted high winds moved the event up by a day.
The competition pitted the Team USA members against each other in two runs featuring both of their individual strengths: a downhill run (Vonn’s specialty) and a slalom run (Shiffrin’s specialty).
Vonn competed on back-to-back days, having nabbed a bronze medal on Wednesday morning in the women’s downhill. Shiffrin won gold in the giant slalom last week during her 2018 Olympic debut.
Vonn looked fierce during her downhill run earlier Thursday, racing in 1:39:37 (as in less than two minutes) to put her in first place after 13 skiers.
Shiffrin was the 19th skier to go down the hill and ended the run 1.98 seconds behind Vonn after looking shaky coming out of the first traverse. She placed third in the slalom, helping lift her to second overall.
The event served as a passing of the torch. The 33-year-old Vonn — considered the greatest female ski racer of all time, and the most decorated — has said the PyeongChang Olympics are likely her last, while 22-year-old Shiffrin is still early in her career but is already on a trajectory to potentially surpass Vonn’s 81 World Cup wins.
Now that was some VONN-derful skiing. @lindseyvonn flew during her downhill run in the women’s combined. #WinterOlympics https://t.co/4YMw63E4C3 pic.twitter.com/bAqKeWg86V
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 22, 2018
Vonn told NBC she felt “great” after the downhill, and her excitement was combatting any fatigue.
“My will is stronger than my body most of the time, so I think that’s helping me a lot,” she also said and explained that she switched skis because the pair she wore the previous day got burnt out in that race.
Shiffrin, meanwhile, said she was glad she decided to skip the downhill event the previous night, noting to NBC that it was “definitely helpful not having a day of mentally stressing.”
“I’m feeling pretty fresh, more fresh than I expected to feel today,” added Shiffrin, who has been open about her battle with anxiety.
The two had been scheduled to go head-to-head in the downhill final earlier this week, but Shiffrin pulled out of the event due to weather changes and opted to concentrate on the combined event.
The move sit out of the downhill seemed like it would place Shiffrin in a good position to excel in the combined event, especially in contrast to Vonn as Shiffrin had more recovery time in between events (Vonn had less than 24 hours) and a more time to prepare.
With Shiffrin being the best in the world in the alpine slalom, having won 26 of 32 World Cup slalom events before starting the Olympics, she was clearly a favorite finish atop the podium.
Both Shiffrin and Vonn were aiming to score their second medal of the 2018 Olympics in the combined event, and with this being their final race, both hoped for a fitting finale to close out the Games.
While both have medaled, they have struggled at different points throughout Olympics.
Shiffrin won gold in the giant slalom but finished fourth a day later in her next alpine skiing event, the slalom, coming in just eight-hundredths of a second from bronze. She has also said she may have contracted a virus that could have affected her performance.
After her second run in the slalom, she told NBC Sports that she vomited before coming to the gates.
“It was kind of sudden,” she said. “It almost felt like a virus kind of puking less about nerves.”
Vonn had a bit of a rough start to the Games, having failed to medal in her debut in the Super-G. While she held on to second place for a few minutes after her run in Wednesday’s downhill final, she didn’t hide her emotions as she buried her head in her hands when she saw herself slip from second to third.
Shiffrin was one of the first people to congratulate Vonn on her medal after that event.
Congrats to all our girls showing a really strong performance today, and to @lindseyvonn for the bronze! #GOAT #teamUSA https://t.co/j6GoUVHwMK
— Mikaela Shiffrin (@MikaelaShiffrin) February 21, 2018
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In a post-race interview, Vonn seemed overjoyed that she was able to hang on to the bronze despite having the silver momentarily in her grasp.
“It’s so rewarding,” she told NBC of earning bronze. “Of course I would have liked a gold medal, but this is amazing and I am so proud.”
“I gave it my best shot,” she also said as her voice broke. “I worked my butt off.”
There has been much speculation as to whether Vonn would come back for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, but she has given every indication that these will be the last. She reemphasized this in an emotional interview with NBC after finding out she had held on to third in the downhill.
In an emotional post-race interview, @lindseyvonn says that this was her last Olympic downhill and she hopes she made her late grandfather proud. #WinterOlympics https://t.co/YtEpNzDMDu pic.twitter.com/vWhKp5NSGA
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 21, 2018
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Though Vonn has faced dozens of younger competitors in these Olympics, she’s said she doesn’t see her age as a problem.
“I have a lot more experience. I’ve been through this a few times, and I’ve already won Olympic gold, so I’m not nervous,” Vonn said on the Today show. “I don’t feel the pressure, I know the routine. And I think being older gives me an advantage, so I’m not worried about the young guns just yet.”
She added: “I’m mentally stronger, I believe in myself a lot more, and I know what my body is capable of.”
Vonn has every reason to hold her head high: she is leaving the Games as the oldest female Alpine skiing medalist in Olympic history, and cementing herself as an inspiration to athletes everywhere.
The Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.