WHISTLER, British Columbia — In the instant Lindsey Vonn spun out of control during Wednesday's giant slalom, breaking a finger and ending her latest medal bid, Julia Mancuso — Vonn's teammate and lifelong rival, and the defending champion — sped toward the same spot.
As Vonn lay in the snow off to the side of a course, tangled up in blue netting, an official waved a giant yellow flag through the driving snow and dense fog to warn Mancuso she needed to stop. "It's something that I would not expect, ever," Mancuso said.
A rare confluence of events — awful weather, shortened intervals between racers' starts, Vonn's crash immediately before Mancuso's start — conspired to bring these two together, presumably dashing each's hopes for a third medal at these Games and shining light on a rift between two 25-year-old Americans who have been trying to beat each other since they were girls.
The fog was so thick skiers couldn't see gates with enough space to maneuver. So organizers sent racers out of the starting gate with tighter-than-usual intervals between them for the first run, trying to squeeze in the race and give everyone a chance to ski in relatively similar conditions. The haze never lifted, postponing the second run until today.
Race director Atle Skaardal defended the way things were handled, including not scrapping Wednesday's results and starting from scratch today.
As it was, with Vonn starting 17th and Mancuso 18th — slots based on their giant slalom World Cup results — Mancuso began her run almost to the second as Vonn crashed. 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 (Vonn) 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 checking on Vonn, Mancuso — distracted, discouraged and exhausted — went down to the finish area, then got a snowmobile lift 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 interrupted run. She had to argue her way in. Further flustered, and the 31st skier on a course in worsening conditions, she wound up 18th-fastest, 1.30 seconds behind leader Elisabeth Goergl of Austria. Mancuso lingered in the finish area, dropping down onto her back, then sitting up, before trudging off in tears.
"I know she was disappointed, and … probably frustrated, and probably mad at me," Vonn said at the bottom of the hill, a plastic bag of ice on her right pinkie. "But I can't help that I fell."
Vonn broke the bone at the base of her pinkie. The U.S. Olympic Committee said her status for the last women's race, Saturday's slalom, hadn't been decided.
Mancuso and Vonn's interpersonal dynamics add to the intrigue. For years, they've raced against each other, working their way up the ranks.
Mancuso was a surprise gold medalist in 2006 in the giant slalom, but because of mediocre results since, attributable in part to hip surgery and back problems, she was not viewed as a serious medal favorite this year.
It was Vonn, the two-time reigning World Cup overall champ, who inspired praise, was a key part of NBC's Olympics promotion, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated's Games preview issue.
Here, Vonn has won gold in the downhill and bronze in the super-giant slalom. Mancuso has collected silvers in the downhill and super-combined. 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."
Vonn said: "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."