Vonn can't survive first giant slalom run

Updated: February 25, 2010, 2:23 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- In the very instant that Lindsey Vonn spun out of control during Wednesday's Olympic giant slalom, breaking a finger and ending her latest medal bid, Julia Mancuso -- Vonn's teammate and lifelong rival, not to mention the defending champion -- sped toward that same spot.

As Vonn lay in the snow off to the side of a course, tangled up in blue netting "like a pretzel," an official waved a giant yellow flag through the driving flakes and dense fog to warn Mancuso that she needed to stop. Otherwise, Mancuso would risk slamming into Vonn or a course worker helping her.

"I was kind of thinking, like, 'Is this really happening?' It was hard to kind of wrap my head around it," Mancuso said, "just because it's something that I would not expect, ever."

And so it was that a rare confluence of events -- awful weather, shortened intervals between racers, Vonn's crash immediately before Mancuso's start-and-stop -- conspired to bring these two together, presumably dashing the hopes each harbored for a third medal at these Winter Games and shining light on a simmering rift between a couple of 25-year-old Americans who have been trying to beat each other on skis since they were girls.

The fog was so thick skiers couldn't see oncoming gates with enough space to maneuver. Giant, bright green Olympic rings that usually shine near the course were completely obscured. So organizers sent racers out of the starting gate with tighter-than-usual gaps for the first run, trying to squeeze the whole thing in and give everyone a chance to ski in relatively similar conditions. The haze never lifted, postponing the second run until Thursday, when the forecast isn't much better, with the prospect of snow and more fog.

Had the weather been clear Wednesday, as it was most of the previous week, there would have been more lag time than the 60 seconds between Vonn and Mancuso.

When racers found out about the limited intervals, roughly an hour before the race, Mancuso said: "A lot of us were like, 'Oh, that's kind of nice.' Because it gets it over with, and with the bad weather coming in, it's nice to get out there and ski a race. That's the downside, too. When things go bad, you don't have the extra timeframe to make sure that everything will run smoothly."

Race director Atle Skaardal defended the way things were handled, including the smaller intervals and the decision to split the giant slalom into a two-day race, rather than scrapping Wednesday's results and starting from scratch Thursday with two runs.

"I don't see why we should cancel the first run," Skaardal said. "It was a fair and good first run. Why should we take it away?"

As it was, with Vonn starting 17th, and Mancuso 18th -- slots based on their giant slalom results during the World Cup season -- Mancuso began her run almost to the second as Vonn was crashing.

Skaardal said there wasn't enough time to stop Mancuso from taking off.

"The fact that I wasn't flagged earlier or they weren't able to get her out of the way in time -- it's just a ridiculous situation," said Mancuso, who declined a spot on the U.S. slalom team, meaning the giant slalom is her final event of the Olympics.

After pausing to check on Vonn, a distracted, discouraged and, frankly, exhausted Mancuso made her way slowly down to the finish area, then got a lift on a snowmobile back to the top for a do-over. Even that was problematic: Mancuso was momentarily blocked from getting to the starting gate because she didn't have her credential, which someone had taken down to the finish area after her initial, interrupted run. She had to argue her way in. Now further flustered, and the 31st skier on a course in worsening conditions, she wound up 18th-fastest in the run, 1.30 seconds behind leader Elisabeth Goergl of Austria.

"Even if I stopped at the top, when they realized, 'Oh, she looks hurt,' then at least I'm only skiing 10 seconds, and I can figure out a way to get back up," Mancuso said. "We're pushing 100 percent or more for 50 seconds -- that's like running an extra 400-meter sprint and then having to go up five minutes later and do it again."

Mancuso lingered in the finish area, dropping down onto her back then sitting upright, before trudging off in tears.

"I know she was disappointed, and I know that she was mad, and probably frustrated, and probably mad at me," Vonn said once she was safely at the bottom of the hill, holding a plastic bag of ice on her throbbing right pinkie. "But I can't help that I fell. I wanted to finish."

Shortly after her run, Mancuso posted an angry tweet with an obscenity. Several minutes later, she filed a cleaned-up dispatch: "that yellow flag in the GS was such... I just want to scream. I'm really miffed. Anyway, gotta take that energy and focus it for 2nd run."

[+] EnlargeLindsey Vonn
AP Photo/Sergey PonomarevLindsey Vonn led early, but ended up crashing during the first run of the giant slalom.

In the evening, after the day's happenings had made the rounds, Mancuso posted yet another tweet: "been hearing lots of people thinking I'm mad at Lindsey for crashing... thats just ridiculous! bummed about the situation...not Lindsey."

The giant slalom is Vonn's worst event -- she never has finished higher than fourth in a World Cup GS, let alone won one. But she began Wednesday's opening leg spectacularly, reaching the third checkpoint with more than a third of a second advantage over Goergl.

Trying to navigate a sharp right turn, Vonn was thrown back on her skis and then twisted around, as though being forced through a revolving door, before smacking sideways into the protective net lining the course.

"I was so tangled up there," Vonn said. "I was like a pretzel in the nets."

She broke the bone at the base of her pinkie, and the U.S. Olympic Committee said Vonn's status for the last women's race, Friday's slalom, hasn't been decided.

If any skier other than Mancuso had followed Vonn down the hill Wednesday, the story would be far less intriguing. But their interpersonal dynamics add to the intrigue. For years, they've raced against each other, working their way up the ranks. As recently as a few seasons ago, Mancuso cried after getting edged by Vonn in a World Cup race. At the 2005 world championships, Vonn shed tears after she finished fourth twice while Mancuso was earning two bronzes.

Mancuso, who's from Squaw Valley, Calif., was a surprise gold medalist at the 2006 Turin Olympics in the giant slalom, but because of mediocre results since, attributable at least in part to hip surgery and related back problems, she was not viewed as a serious medal favorite heading to Whistler.

Instead, it was Vonn, the two-time reigning World Cup overall champion, who inspired praise and predictions, who was a key part of NBC's pre-Olympics promotion, who posed in a bikini for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition and graced the cover of its Vancouver preview issue.

Once here, both shined -- Mancuso more than anyone anticipated, Vonn less so, perhaps in part because of a badly bruised right shin hurt in training three weeks ago.

Vonn, who lives and trains in Vail, Colo., won gold in the downhill and bronze in the super-G, but skied out in the super-combined. Mancuso collected silvers in the downhill and super-combined. That last medal came Thursday, and when asked about being under the radar, Mancuso said: "I think that our ski team, in general, deserved a little more attention, because a lot of the media was all about Lindsey, and I think that we have a lot of great girls on our ski team."

The rhetoric was ratcheted up when SI.com quoted Mancuso as saying, "People are having a hard time reaching their potential because it's such a struggle for attention. You come to meetings after races and it's like it's a bad day if Lindsey didn't do well."

Asked to react, Vonn said: "I try to support Julia as much as I support all the other teammates. I've been racing with Julia since I was a little kid, and yes, we're competitors, but I always support her and it definitely has hurt me that she said some negative things about me, and all I can do is continue to support her like I always have been and hope that she reciprocates that. ... It just bums me out."

At the end of a long and odd day, Mancuso was prodded again to talk about Vonn. She didn't take the bait. There were other things on her mind.

"Of course, I wish I could have this morning happen over," Mancuso said. "That was probably the worst possible thing that could happen in the Olympics -- to get flagged on ... your defending gold medal run."

She will back on the course Thursday for the giant slalom's second run. Vonn will not.

Goergl led the opening leg in 1 minute, 15.12 seconds. Taina Barioz of France was only 0.02 behind, and Kathrin Zettel of Austria was third, 0.16 back.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report