- Howard Bryant, Senior Writer
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WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Lindsey Vonn knew the precise moment when she lost her chance for a gold medal in Saturday's super-G. It wasn't on the sharp curve of the track that the high favorites could not negotiate, but rather in a curious tactical decision that failed.
Vonn chose to play it safe near the end of her run. She had outpaced her competition. She was in the lead, a second gold medal within her sights.
Two skiers later, Andrea Fischbacher of Austria passed Vonn for the lead and won the gold. Then, out of nowhere, Tina Maze of Slovakia enjoyed the run of her life, blazing past Vonn for the silver medal.
And so Vonn's tall task of sweeping the speed events ended, but the medal count for the U.S. ski team rose by one. Vonn's bronze gives her two medals for the Games and seven in five events for a U.S. team that has already set a record for medals during these Games.
Vonn's strategy change was fatal to her chances of winning another gold medal. These Olympics have been defined by the sharpness and speed of the course and the necessity to play the course -- even at the risk of wipeout -- because caution simply will not produce results.
In the two women's Alpine skiing events thus far, the championship formula has been aggressiveness and a focused attack on the course to generate and maintain speed. When Vonn won gold in the downhill last week, it was because of her relentless, assaulting style. She was able to ski at speed in sections of the course where her rivals pared back their aggressiveness and others, sensing the pressure of needing a fast time, lost control on a course that was highlighted by violent, high-speed crashes. At no point in her gold medal downhill run did she choose the conservative route.
The same was true the next day for gold medal winner Maria Riesch in the super-combined. Riesch powered her way down a scaled-back downhill run -- officials shaved the course jumps to prevent further injury and shortened the course by more than 20 seconds -- and again in the slalom leg of the competition.
But Saturday, skiing after dual silver medalist Julia Mancuso and Riesch, Vonn sped out to a fast lead and overtook Riesch and Mancuso on the early portion of the course with a low-leaning, rushing style that suggested she would continue attacking the course as she did during her gold-medal run. Mancuso, who was the first skier of the day, set a fast pace but could not navigate a vicious curve in the second interval and was pulled far off of her line.
"I went a little early into my turn, and that really cost me, that mistake," Mancuso said. "You could see Maria beat me by a second in that section. I knew when I crossed the finish line that I blew it, but I was hoping for a slight miracle."
Riesch, meanwhile, started slow but gained power slicing through the middle section of the course for a lead before slowing at the end.
But where Mancuso lost time because her aggressiveness carried her off course, Vonn in the final two segments the course admittedly played the safe line toward the finish. Statistically, she timed just in 10th place and seventh going into the final two sections, and still finished in first place, clear evidence that a stronger finish could have extended her lead time and may have given her gold. Riesch finished eighth on the day, Mancuso ninth.
"Once I got past those difficult sections, I kind of backed off the gas pedal," Vonn said. "I felt like I just didn't ski as aggressively as I could have, and I think that's where I lost the race."
"I think she was skiing a bit conservative, but I've seen her skiing this way often this season and she's still won," Riesch said. "But she's got a medal."
Even on their home slopes, the Canadians struggled badly with the ferocious speed of the course. Georgia Simmerling led the Canadian effort in 27th place. Her two other teammates, Emily Brydon and Shona Rubens, did not finish.
If Vonn thought her reserve would cost her, it did, for Fischbacher was better.
"I was thinking after the inspection that you have to go really fast and fight and fight," Fischbacher said. "It's a dream coming true. I was thinking if I was able to have a perfect run I could be there."
If the Americans were comfortable with their strong showing in Whistler, Fischbacher's victory provided a much-needed boost to the Austrians, who outside of Elisabeth Goergl's bronze in the downhill, have sputtered somewhat at the Games, especially on the men's side.
"I think it was a really good course. It was a good set, very challenging, but I think the right winner won today," said Chemmy Alcott of Great Britain. "I know [Fischbacher] was very angry. I saw her in dope testing after the downhill and she'd been three-hundredths off the podium, so I would have put my money on her today because she was ready to charge. I wasn't surprised she won.
"Tina, I was surprised. That was a really good ski. She skied out of her skin today and that was awesome. I think Lindsey hasn't dominated as much in super-G this year as downhill and it's more challenging. It's anyone's game out there."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.
Lindsey Vonn won downhill gold by pushing the limits. She lost her lead in the super-G by taking her foot off the gas, writes Howard Bryant.