Lindsey Vonn is the most decorated female skier in history, and the most decorated skier, man or woman, in U.S. history. She’s also the athlete whose motto is “If you fall, pick yourself back up.” And with good reason. It isn’t just that she’s fallen, a lot. It’s that each time she picks herself back up, she doesn’t just stumble to standing position. She pushes herself onto another podium.
Starting on Feb. 17 with the Olympic women’s super-G, followed by the downhill on Feb. 21 and the combined on Feb. 23, that motto will be tested yet again. Pyeongchang isn’t just Vonn’s last chance for another Olympic gold. After being forced to sit out Sochi in 2014 with an injury, it will be the ultimate chance for comeback for the ultimate comeback queen. It’s also a chance well within her grasp even now, at 33, racing with battle scars and a knee brace. Despite her own extraordinary career, even her 11-years-younger rival Mikaela Shiffrin is quick to defer to Vonn as the predominant talent. And not in past tense, either. “Lindsey still has speed. Plenty of it,” Shiffrin says.
If you, like many Americans, only took real notice of the Minnesota native when she began appearing on Sports Illustrated covers or dating a certain golf pro, if you’ve since managed to avoid her various documentaries and commercials and profiles everywhere from ESPN to People (and for the record, no, you did not see her on Dancing with the Stars)—then first of all, weird. Second, and perhaps even if you have seen her appearances (after all, fame has a funny way of blurring why someone’s well-known to begin with), it’s time to bone up on some basic facts. And there’s no better time to do so than the Winter Olympics. Otherwise, you’re basically watching the Super Bowl thinking Tom Brady’s main claim to fame is that he’s Giselle Bündchen’s other half or that he posed half-naked clutching a football for a Sports Illustrated cover that one time.
You probably know that Vonn is most famous for downhill, the most rip-roaringly risky and wind-shriekingly speediest of all of the events, a discipline where it’s common to hit 80 or 90 mph, at steeps up to 40 degrees, all on a veritable ice rink. (Unlike your local bunny hill, the snow on a World Cup course gets injected with water to make it as smooth, icy, and consistent for all the racers as possible).
You may also know that Vonn’s the best downhill skier today, or in the U.S., or among women.
But that’s not quite right. She’s not just the best-add-qualifiers-here. She’s the best downhill skier ever, in the world, period.
Take her records. She’s won more season titles in downhill, eight, than any other athlete. (The best of the men, Austrian legend Franz Klammer, had five). She’s had more World Cup downhill victories (42 and counting) than anyone in history, beating both the previous women’s record (Annemarie Moser-Pröll, 36 wins) and the current men’s record (Klammer, 25).
She’s not exactly shabby in the other speed discipline, super-G, either. Vonn has won more super-G races than anyone in history (runner-up: Hermann Maier), and she’s tied the record held by three other skiers for five super-G season titles.
But how did she tally those numbers? This, is where her technique comes in. And once you start to take a closer look, you get it: She’s no (mere) cover girl. She’s an absolute phenomenon.
Here she is, for example, just a few days ago in Garmisch, the final race before the Olympics.
Like all of the racers, she folds her 5-foot-10 frame into a compact, aerodynamic tuck before she even gets to the first gate. But unlike all of the racers, her form has textbook precision. Freeze-frame her at 0:08—her feet and skis are tracking perfectly parallel, her knee is at the kind of right angle you need a protractor to draw, her elbows are level with her knees and her hands with her chin and her hips, her eyes are looking to the next turn.
Even unmoving, maintaining a position like this isn’t easy. (I’ve tried). Try doing it at home on the floor, and you’ll find that not only do your muscles start to burn faster than you might think, but it’s tougher to keep your balance than if you were standing. Now imagine that your back is loaded with several times your own body weight and that you’re being pushed and pulled from one side to the other: G-forces doing their thing. Now imagine that you’re also calculating your path while you’re going 115 feet per second. And maintaining your balance while on a steep ice rink. See why it’s harder than Vonn makes it look?
For a point of comparison, watch Stacey Cook, who reaches the same spot of the course and same camera angle at 0:08 of this video. Another speed veteran of the U.S. team, Cook is also a talent; she’s had three World Cup podiums in her career. But at least this early in the course, she hasn’t found the same position as Vonn. She’s standing up much more. One knee is bent more than the other. Even once she settles in a bit at 0:09, she isn’t as compact as her teammate. Where Vonn has only inches between her torso and thighs, Cook has a foot—an invitation for more air turbulence and drag.
(It wasn’t a good run for Cook. Watch the video for a few more seconds and you’ll watch her ski slide out, sending her headlong into the nets; luckily, she walked away.)
Vonn’s ability to maintain a perfect tuck is about more than looking pretty. The fact that the position is used throughout a downhill points to what makes the event so different from the tech disciplines, slalom and G.S. For those events, you’re making lots of short, fast turns; the quickest way down is to harness the boomerang effect of a ski to catapult from one turn to the next, usually best done when the ski is on edge.
Not so with downhill. With turns so big or straight they’re sometimes barely turns, you want to keep your skis as flat as possible to the snow, a technique called “gliding”. It’s about being light on your edges and, as much as possible, flat on your skis. It’s also where it’s easiest to tuck.
Gliding is Vonn’s forte. It’s why she finds more success on downhills that have flatter, straighter sections, which are made for gliding. (Of course, it’s worth noting that you don’t get to 42 downhill victories without being good at all of it. Vonn’s just insanely good at the gliding part). Lake Louise, for example, is one of those courses that seems built for her: Vonn has had an astonishing 14 downhill victories there throughout her career, including her first ever World Cup win. It wasn’t as good to her this year, with a hair-raising crash she walked away from, followed by a 12th place in the next day’s downhill. But here she is at Lake Louise in 2014:
Look how powerful, and yet light on her edges, she is at 1:17—even as she comes into her turn at 1:20, she’s putting only as much pressure on her skis as she needs to turn cleanly. It’s a way different technique than, say, Mikaela Shiffrin’s carved G.S. turns here:
Technique is one thing. Vonn also has a keen talent for taking the tightest, fastest line. That isn’t an easy strategy to stick to at these speeds; it also isn’t always a safe one. “Sometimes I push myself too far,” she’s said. “I take a line that is either win or crash, you know? Most of the time I find that line, but sometimes I go a little overboard.”
Go back to that Garmisch run. At the fourth split in the same race, she trailed Tina Weirather by .30 seconds; in ski racing, that’s not an insignificant amount to make up.
Here’s Weirather’s run, starting at 14:11. Stop Weirather at 15:40 and compare it to Vonn at 1:13. Once again, you can see that Vonn is just that much more compact than her rival, her knees more flexed, her hands more forward. But it’s not just her body position that gives her an edge. Stop the frame at 1:21 for Vonn, compared to 15:50 for Weirather, and you can see that now Vonn is significantly closer to the gate than her rival. A couple of beats later, around 1:24, Vonn stays almost entirely within the blue line of the track; Weirather, on the other hand, skis outside a much bigger portion at 15:50.
Vonn’s line was the most direct—and it paid off. She made up the .30 seconds and then some, ultimately edging Weirather by .12 seconds. (Italian spitfire Sofia Goggia then screwed the bolts on Weirather, pushing her into third).
But Vonn isn’t just a downhill phenomenon. Though she focuses on downhill and super-G now, she’s one of only six women in history to have won World Cup races in all five disciplines (including GS, slalom, and super combined). She’s also won four overall World Cup titles—given out at the end of each season to the athlete who did the best across all the disciplines, building up the most points, and generally considered a better measurement of a skier’s overall ability than any single race. That puts her in an elite club of just seven athletes total, including Hermann Maier and Moser-Pröll.
All of that has helped get her to 81 career World Cup wins, more than any other woman in history. If she can pull off five more, she’ll catch up to Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark, who set the world record of 86 when Vonn was barely out of diapers, in 1989. Beating this record is Vonn’s biggest current goal.
In the volatile world of ski racing, being on pace for any record is never a given. But for Vonn, it’s been especially touch-and-go. Because if all of Vonn’s wins and records seem impressive, consider this: She’s racked them up while being benched for almost all of 2013-2014 season and portions of many of the others, not to mention battling injuries throughout the rest of her career.
In fact, since her first World Cup victory in the 2004 season, more than half of her seasons have seen her sustain injury. Her list of battle scars is almost as long as her list of medals:
- Following up two silvers in the World Champs with a crash in slalom training that sprained her ACL, forcing her to end the season four weeks early (the 2007 season).
- A fall that resulted in microfractures and bruised her arm so badly she had to race three events in a brace—and still won all three (2010).
- A crash in the Olympic GS that broke her finger (also 2010).
- A concussion just a week before the World Championships, where she pulled off a silver in the downhill anyway (2011).
- At the next World Championships, tearing her ACL, MCL and fracturing her tibia during a crash in the super-G (2013).
- Re-tearing her ACL, coming back to compete two weeks later, then damaging her MCL, forcing her to sit out Sochi (2014).
- Crashing in training and fracturing her ankle right before the 2016 season opener.
- Coming back, crashing in a super-G and suffering fractures in her left knee, racing the next day, and then finding out the fractures were worse than she thought and having to end the season early (also 2016).
- Breaking her arm in training and undergoing surgery, then winning her second race back from injury (2017).
- Tweaking her back in a super-G and suffering a spinal joint dysfunction, forcing her to use an aid to walk to congratulate the winner, and then coming back the next week (2018).*
Not even listed here: Requiring stitches and surgery after she sliced a tendon in her thumb on a champagne bottle after her 2009 victory in Val d’Isere. She still earned nine more podiums that season.
Yet every time I think to myself She’s not going to come back from this, she… comes back.
Vonn’s comeback spirit—crucial for any skier looking to have a long career in the infamously injury-prone discipline of downhill—has been evident from the get-go. At her second Winter Olympics in 2006, she earned the field’s second best time on the first downhill practice run. On the second, she crashed and was helicoptered off the hill. Badly bruised, she still competed two days later (and came in eighth).
That kind of resilience requires more than talent and an insane physical and training regimen (though Vonn has both). It requires incredible levels of mental fortitude. It requires the ability to believe that it still makes sense to sacrifice your free time, your personal life, your privacy, all to launch yourself out of starting gates trying to go insane, potentially body-wrecking speeds—and that no, you aren’t too injured or too old to keep trying.
Vonn’s ability to keep at her dream is all the more impressive because of a hurdle we can’t see. While her physical injuries grab headlines, there’s something else she’s battled for years that, in such a mentally demanding sport, may have been harder to overcome than any torn ligament: Depression. She first spoke publicly about it back in 2012. It’s a big part of why her furry sidekick, Lucy, is with her almost everywhere she goes. And although medication helps, Vonn says she still has “good days and bad days… but it doesn’t go away.”
At the end of January, Vonn became the oldest woman to win a World Cup downhill in history. She also became the first skier to win a race on the World Cup circuit for 15 years in a row. Even if those of us watching hadn’t been sure she could pull it off, Vonn hadn’t doubted it.
“This is just the momentum that I was hoping for and that I was planning on going into the Olympics,” she said after Cortina. “I know what I’m capable of. This weekend just proves it.”
As for the Olympics, she told ESPN, “The plan is to withdraw everything I have in South Korea and gamble it all away. Three races. No fear. Everything I have. Either I win or I eat shit. It’s one of the two. That’s all I can do.”
Whether she medals or not, it seems certain that Vonn will be taking on her last Olympics with the same approach she’s used her whole career: Go big or go home. Even if it’s a disaster? If she crashes? I’m pretty sure she’ll pick herself back up.
After all, she still has a record to beat.