Column: A bronze that feels golden for Lindsey Vonn

Gold medal winner Sofia Goggia, left, of Italy, and bronze medalist Lindsey Vonn, of the United States, react after the flower ceremony for the women's downhill at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Jeongseon, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
United States' Lindsey Vonn smiles in the finish area of the women's downhill at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Jeongseon, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
From left Norway's Ragnhild Mowinckel, silver, Italy's Sofia Goggia, gold, and United States' Lindsey Vonn, bronze, pose during the venue ceremony for the women's downhill event at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Jeongseon, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie )
Bronze medal winner Lindsey Vonn, center, of the United States, celebrates after the flower ceremony for the women's downhill at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Jeongseon, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Bronze medal winner Lindsey Vonn, of the United States, celebrates during the flower ceremony for the women's downhill at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Jeongseon, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
Bronze medal winner Lindsey Vonn, of the United States, celebrates during the flower ceremony for the women's downhill at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Jeongseon, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Bronze medal winner Lindsey Vonn, of the United States, playfully places a stuffed Olympic mascot over her face as she celebrates during the flower ceremony for the women's downhill at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Jeongseon, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.(AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

JEONGSEON, South Korea — Over coffee last November at Lindsey Vonn's home in Colorado, Sofia Goggia of Italy asked her friend for some advice.

How does she handle the pressure? How does she deal with the expectations?

Vonn didn't hesitate to answer. An honest answer, and one the new Olympic downhill champion seemed to take to heart.

"It probably helped her (win)," Vonn said with a wry smile.

Maybe, but on this brilliantly sunny day on the slopes at Jeongseon Alpine Centre that seemed OK to Vonn, too. Just getting on the podium herself with her family there to watch seemed like a win by itself to the American who dominated the slopes for so many years.

At the age of 33 there aren't too many downhills left for Vonn. As much as she was hurting after this one, she savored what will almost surely be her last Olympic medal, even though she will race again Thursday in the combined.

Yes, the medal was bronze. But the moment was golden.

She was skiing in memory of her grandfather, who passed away a few months ago. She was skiing for her family, including her father who was not in Vancouver for her last Olympic run when the two were estranged.

She was skiing again for America, draping herself in the flag afterward after being bullied online for saying she would not accept an invitation to the White House after the Games.

Mostly, though, she was skiing for herself.

It's not quite the end of the line for Vonn, but the line is in sight. Her body has been beaten down by so many crashes, so many spills, and so much stress that the next World Cup season could be her last.

"An emotional day all around because this is probably my last Olympic downhill," Vonn said. "But I'm on the podium, so I'm very happy."

She was the first American woman to win gold in the downhill, romping past the field in Vancouver eight years and what seems like an eternity ago. To return after missing the 2014 Olympics while rehabbing a torn ACL — one of two Vonn suffered — was a feat all by itself.

But to bring home a medal — the oldest woman to ever medal in the downhill — made it all worthwhile.

Vonn fought back tears afterward trying to describe it all. There would surely be even more tears afterward when she reunited with her family, who all came to watch.

"I love racing in the Olympics," Vonn said. "I love racing. I love being in the starting gate, with so much pressure, you feel suffocated, but somehow you will yourself to give everything you have and you throw yourself down the mountain in hopes of a medal. I'm absolutely going to miss it. I wish I could keep skiing. I wish that my body didn't hurt as bad as it does."

Winning a final Olympic downhill gold was always going to be an uphill climb for Vonn. She and Goggia had traded World Cup wins all season, but the younger Italian was building confidence with each race.

When the Italian got up for the early race, that confidence was at a peak.

"I knew this was my day," Goggia said, "when I saw on the gondola the sun rising up and I felt good. I put my boots on and I was really with my center. I said, 'This could be my day so let's make it.'"

Goggia was fifth out of the starting gate, and turned in a near perfect run. Vonn was two places behind her, and just couldn't match the pace.

Her silver would turn to bronze when Ragnhild Mowinckel of Norway turned in a surprise silver-medal run as the 19th racer on the course.

To Vonn, it was as good as gold.

"It feels amazing," she said. "During Sochi, I was on the couch watching the Olympics after my second ACL surgery. I have had a lot of ups and downs, mostly downs, in that time. But you know I'm here and I'm on the Olympic podium again."

There's an outside chance she's not done, though the bookies in Las Vegas would be wise not to lay down a line. Vonn races in the combined on Thursday without having really trained for the slalom part, and even she admits it would take a miracle to get a fourth medal to go with her four Olympics.

"It's a longshot," she said.

Her Olympic experience — which began 16 years ago in Salt Lake City — will soon be over. She plans to continue racing, but can't possibly see an Olympics at the age of 37 with the toll it has taken on her body.

But the last one was special, and in so many ways.

"I wanted to win for my grandfather but I didn't. But I think he would still be proud of me for bronze, and I think that's what counts," Vonn said. "My family is proud of me and I'm proud of myself. Today bronze to me feels like gold."

____

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or on Twitter @timdahlberg

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