ÅRE, SWEDEN (AFP) - United States ski star Lindsey Vonn brought her illustrious career to a close with a hard-fought bronze at Sunday's (Feb 10) world downhill which was won by defending champion Ilka Stuhec of Slovenia.
Vonn, the most successful woman skier with a record 20 World Cup titles and 82 victories on the circuit, clocked 1min 02.23sec, briefly leading before slipping behind Stuhec and Swiss silver medallist Corinne Suter in the Swedish resort of Are.
"It was so fun, I was literally the most nervous I've ever been in my entire life," she told Eurosport. "I wanted to come down and be in the lead for one last time and to hear the crowd roar and to not crash.
"I'm always full tilt and always on the limit. I was worried that I'd charge too hard and not make it down for my last race - that's my worst nightmare."
While all the build-up had been about Vonn, Stuhec became the first skier to successfully defend the women's downhill world title since Swiss Maria Walliser (1987, 1989), with only three others having previously won twice in a row.
"It's been high, it's been low, now I'm here again," said Stuhec. "There are a lot of girls who are skiing super great and every race is super tight and everyone has a lot of chances.
"I knew I could ski fast, I just needed to get confidence and stop putting too much pressure on myself, just ski and enjoy."
Vonn herself joined Kjetil Andre Aamodt (seven tournaments), Marc Girardelli (six) and Aksel Lund Svindal (nine) as the only skiers to have collected a medal at six or more World Ski Championships.
At 34 years and 115 days old, she also became the oldest world medallist, performing in front of an onlooking Ingemar Stenmark, the Swedish skiing legend whose record of 86 World Cup victories Vonn will now not break.
For her final downhill, the American donned a blue and grey helmet and white catsuit, with blue and yellow lines around her sleeves, lower leg and midriff in what she said was both a nod to host country Sweden and to honour nemesis Stenmark.
Racing with bib No. 3, Vonn, who admitted this season that her "body is broken beyond repair" and faces a knee reconstruction in the near future, had laid out her mindset in an Instagram post just before the race.
"One last time I will stand in the starting gate. One last time I will feel the adrenaline running through my veins. One last time I will risk it all. One last time... I will remember it forever. Let's do this!" she said.
'Need for speed'
Pushing aggressively out of the start hut with a scream of exhortation, Vonn quickly skated into a tuck to attack the Strecke course shortened to 1.67km instead of the full 2.23km because of fog up top.
"I feel the need... the need for speed!" the on-site commentator said to rev up a large, vociferous crowd gathered around the finish area.
Vonn was 0.23sec behind at the first intermediary, but laid down a near-perfect midsection to come through 0.33sec ahead of Germany's front runner Viktoria Rebensburg.
The crowd roared as she flashed through the finish line, Rebensburg jumping off the leader's chair to go and embrace the American.
"She's a great sports person," the German said. "What she has achieved is just amazing. It was just emotions and I thought at this moment to show her my respect."
Applause followed as images of Vonn being handed a bouquet of white flowers by Stenmark were flashed up on the big screen television.
Vonn then had to endure a host of rivals coming down the piste. Reigning Olympic champion Sofia Goggia of Italy made two big errors to finish 15th, 1.02sec off the pace.
But for a mistake three turns from the bottom, Norway's Ragnhild Mowinckel, a surprise combined bronze medallist, would have taken the lead, eventually finishing fifth.
Austrian Stephanie Venier then streaked down, finishing 0.04sec off Vonn, leaving the American clutching her face in angst.
As the sun broke through, so later skiers flourished, and Slovenian Stuhec made no mistake, laying down a perfect line to take the lead 0.49sec ahead of Vonn.
Then came the Austrian pair of Nicole Schmidhofer, world super-G champion in 2017, and Ramona Siebenhofer, who just missed out on a medal in the combined here. But neither troubled the podium.
Starting in 19, super-G bronze medallist Suter rocked the apple cart by claiming silver, 0.23sec off Stuhec.