Moments earlier, near the starting gate of the slalom course outside PyeongChang, the snow started to fall again; the wind whipping around snowflakes as if they were confetti in a shockingly picturesque scene as 33-year-old Lindsey Vonn stepped into the starting gate.
Earlier in the evening, Vonn dominated the downhill portion of the ladies’ alpine combined; her 1:39.37 time nearly a full second better than her competitors. Vonn’s 0.74 second lead on Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel was notable; the difference between Mowinckel — who bested Vonn for the silver medal in the downhill only one day prior — and fourth-place Ramona Siebenhoffer of Austria was only 0.23.
Vonn, one of the greatest downhill skiers of all time, knew she was going to need it, suggesting after that portion that “maybe I can pull out a miracle.”
There was no miracle to be had. Vail’s Vonn is by far the most accomplished woman to ever strap on a pair of skis, but when the second leg of the combined event — the slalom — finally arrived later on Thursday, it was clear that the Olympic torch had been passed from one Colorado athlete to another. Vonn, the final skier of the event, had an opportunity for a fairy-tale ending as an Olympian, but promptly missed a gate, ending her chances to win in an instant.
Eagle-Vail’s Mikaela Shiffrin, at 22 years of age, ran the slalom course in a brisk 40.52 — the second-fastest time to Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener — and made up almost all of the ground, finishing second in the combined to Swiss skier Michelle Gisin by 0.97 seconds.
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 22, 2018
In three events, Shiffrin finished with a gold medal in the giant slalom, a silver in the combined, and a narrow fourth-place finish in the slalom, confirming her status as not only America’s next great skier, but as an eventual contender to Vonn’s lofty throne. Her two career gold medals are already the most that any American alpine skier has ever won, and her three overall medals in two Olympic performance match Vonn and trail only Julia Mancuso and Bode Miller with four. Shiffrin, again, is only 22.
“I made a bit too big a mistake in the downhill to come back from that in the slalom, but I can be really proud of a lot of the turns I made today,” Shiffrin said after the race. “It’s really, really incredible to walk away from here with a medal.”
For Vonn, her legacy shouldn’t be tarnished by a ‘DNF’ in an event that she rarely enters anymore, and moreover, while this will almost certainly be her last Olympics, Vonn’s bronze medal in the downhill made her the oldest alpine skier to ever medal in the Olympics… and she did finish first in the downhill leg on Thursday. She’s not fading away into the sunset. Vonn, with 81 career World Cup wins, could still pass the legendary Ingemar Stenmark’s 86 before she retires, but her Olympic experience ended without the miracle she hoped for.
The two Coloradans, in their final Olympic events of these games, have now intersected in these Olympics at vastly different points in their careers, but with the same goals — and the ability to achieve them. For both Vonn and Shiffrin, the future is as clear as the past is now in record, and the world is on notice: the greatest overall skiers on Earth belong to Team USA, and forever to the Centennial State.
Long live the queens.