Watching Lindsey Vonn at the end of Sunday’s downhill race in Are, Sweden, her smile dazzling, her arms spreading into a victory V, bowing half-humorously to the cheering crowd, one thought occurred to me: It’s been a while since we’ve seen Vonn smile this big in the finish area. That thought was followed by another, bittersweet one: It’ll be the last time, too.
Vonn had every reason to celebrate. Her run not only put her in the lead, but, for a while, kept her there. For a few minutes, it seemed like all of the fates were aligning to give Vonn a final victory in the final race of her career. Sweeter still, it all happened under the eyes of her idol and “rival” Ingemar Stenmark, the Swedish racer whose World Cup win record she’d fought so hard to beat and who she’d practically begged to come see her.
In the end, a victory wasn’t meant to be. Aggressive runs by Slovenia’s Ilka Štuhec and Switzerland’s Corinne Suter pushed her into third. But it didn’t matter. For Vonn and her fans, it was still a fairytale ending.
There was no guarantee it would end like this. And no one knew that better than Vonn.
“I was literally the most nervous I’ve ever been in my entire life,” she said later—a pretty big admission when you remember how many times she’s been under pressure throughout her long career, from family, friends, sponsors, the U.S. team and, not least of all, herself. “I wanted to come down and be in the lead one last time—even if it didn’t stand—and to hear the crowd roar.
“And to not crash,” she added, laughing.
Staying upright, never mind getting the green light, are two things that are anything but a given for any World Cup racer. That’s even (and perhaps especially) true for a legend like Vonn: an athlete who hadn’t finished better than ninth in a run this season, who just announced her retirement because her body is “broken beyond repair” and who crashed, earning herself a shiner, hurt ribs and a dashed main shot at a medal, in the super-G last week.
Vonn’s performance Sunday wasn’t merely a shining cap on a stunning career. It also brought history full circle. At the last World Championships in St. Moritz 2017, she crashed in the super-G and nabbed bronze in the downhill (and, coincidentally, Štuhec won then too). And, oddly enough, the final World Cup victory of her career came on this same hill: it was in Are, Sweden in March 2018 that she won gold in the downhill and bronze in the super-G. Before Sunday, these were the last two times she’d climbed a podium. They could have been her last.
Vonn said in her retirement announcement that she didn’t want the storyline of her career to be about injuries. So much so, in fact, that she secretly underwent surgery this past spring: “A large portion of cartilage that had delaminated from my bone was removed.” But when you’re appreciating the sheer strength and force of will of a talent like Vonn, you’d be remiss to overlook just what she’s put her body through on her hunt to be, and stay, the best. As Bode Miller, no stranger to injury himself, put it on Eurosport: “That [super-G] crash looked particularly nasty, too. That was one that I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been the end… But those are things she’s designed to overcome. She’s about as tough as any person on the planet, male or female.”
No kidding. As a reminder, Vonn is a racer who, since her first World Cup victory, has sustained major injuries in more than half of her seasons. She’s sprained her ACL, gotten micro-fractures in her arm, broken her finger, gotten a concussion, torn her ACL and MCL and fractured her tibia (that was all at her super-G crash at the 2013 World Championships, as it happened), fractured her ankle, fractured her left knee, broken her arm and had spinal joint dysfunction… all before the Olympics last year.
That didn’t include her crash at the Lake Louise downhill in December 2017. At the time, she described her knee as “swollen”—an injury which, compared to her long litany of battle scars, didn’t even seem worth mentioning. But it turned out it was much more than that. “My crash in Lake Louise last year was much more painful than I let on,” Vonn revealed in her Instagram post announcing her retirement. That’s what led to her secret surgery. And that made her other victories last season, including first place at the Val d’Isère super-G just two weeks after the Lake Louise crash, especially impressive.
It’s important to remember just why Vonn gets injured so much. A huge part of it is the nature of the events she’s tackled. As I’ve written before, downhill racing is unlike any other discipline. It’s the fastest, wildest and most insane thing to do—not only in ski racing, but arguably in sports, period. You can’t tell from the video cameras, which tend to flatten out the slopes and slow down the skiers. But these are serious gradients—and speeds. The women’s course at Garmisch has an 85 percent gradient. Even on the Are course yesterday, not known as one of the steepest downhills, the racers went from 0 to 100 kph (62 mph) within moments. Hitting 130 kph (80 mph) isn’t uncommon. That’s 117 feet per second. While you’re battling insane g-forces, keeping your balance across any weird bumps or ruts, handling wind and any change in weather conditions and sunlight, trying to carve across a veritable ice rink (courses are purposely designed to be icy, often even injected with water, to keep them as smooth as possible)… and pushing yourself to go faster.
So that’s a big part. But any athlete who makes her career primarily out of that kind of discipline has a superhuman fearlessness, and that may be even more true of Vonn than anyone else. And this is the second reason Vonn has gotten injured so much: As she says herself, frequently, she either goes big or goes home. Unfortunately, going big, at speeds and steeps this nutty, can be career-threatening. Even life-threatening. But where other racers try to survive, Vonn throws it all to the wind. She goes for the fastest line, the most aggressive stance—even when it winds up with her in the nets.
There’s perhaps no better example of this than her Olympic gold-winning run in Vancouver 2010. First watch her teammate Julia Mancuso, who ultimately nabbed silver. Mancuso is aggressive—you don’t get an Olympic medal if you aren’t—but she takes such a clean line, and her form is so precise, that Vonn’s coach, her husband Thomas, radioed up to tell the skier Mancuso had skied an “almost perfect” run. “You now have to attack from start to finish or you’re not going to win,” he warned her.
So Vonn went for better than perfect. She went for risky. She even charged out of the starting hut with more effort than her teammate: Mancuso had settled into her tuck and stopped skating halfway to the first gate, while Vonn kept skating until she was almost at the turn.
By pushing her body further, diving down the hill more, she wasn’t always as pretty as Mancuso. Just pause the video of Mancuso at 0:19, and Vonn’s at 0:21, to see them in the same point of a turn. Mancuso looks textbook, strong, and in control; Vonn is fighting, her arms akimbo. Stop them each again a second later: Mancuso is on the perfect line, nailing the gate with her right shoulder; Vonn is a ski’s length away from it, meaning she’s skiing more terrain—and giving herself more time to make up for. Stop the videos at 0:26 and 0:28, respectively, and you can see the same thing. Vonn is nowhere near that gate. But you can also see the time split: despite the extra distance she’s skiing, Vonn already has 0.83 seconds on her teammate—a frankly phenomenal amount of time.
It’s true that she was skiing a less efficient line. But that’s largely because of her sheer speed, which made it that much tougher to make those turns.
Vonn finished 0.56 of a second ahead of her teammate and, of course, grabbed gold. “It wasn’t the perfect run by any means, it was a little ragged, but it was fast,” she said after.
That kind of risk-taking is classic Vonn. So much so that it could have knocked her out in her last race on Sunday—and everyone knew it.
“Were you worried about taking too much risk?” Miller asked Vonn at the end of her downhill run. She started nodding before he even finished the question. “That’s my problem is that I’m always full tilt and always on the limit, and I was worried that I would charge too hard and not make it down for my last race—that’s pretty much my worst nightmare,” she said immediately.
Luckily, she pushed just enough. To strike that balance on her last race was lucky. It was also the send-off she deserves.
With Sunday’s bronze, Vonn racked up a few other records. She became the first woman to win a medal at six different World Championships. The oldest female racer to win a World Championships medal. And she matched Annemarie Moser-Pröll’s record, set before Vonn was even born, for the number of World Champs medals in the women’s downhill.
None of these, though, were the records she wanted so badly to beat. Stenmark won 86 victories over his career. Vonn, tantalizingly, has 82. You can tell that that kills her, even now.
“Retiring isn’t what upsets me,” she admitted. “Retiring without reaching my goal is what will stay with me forever.”
I get it. She’s been talking about her hunt for Stenmark’s record for so long. The media has been, too. But let’s regroup for a moment. If any of us—Vonn included—focus too much on that one goal, we’re missing the incredible arc, and longevity, of her success.
Over her 18 years of being active on the World Cup circuit—more than half her life—Vonn has started in 14 individual Olympic races. Twenty-five World Championships. And a mind-boggling 395 World Cup races. Of those 395 World Cup starts, she’s climbed the podium on 137 occasions—more than a third of the time. That means she’s raced more, and longer, and better, than nearly any other other legend in ski history.
Hermann Maier made 268 World Cup starts over his 13-year World Cup career. Over her 11 years on the circuit, Moser-Pröll, the runner-up to Vonn for the most World Cup wins among women, made 175. Even Stenmark started in fewer World Cup races: 230 over 15 years. Vonn is a true iron woman of the sport, even with all her injuries.
Vonn’s 43 World Cup downhill victories are more than anyone in history, male or female. She’s earned more season titles in downhill, eight, than any other athlete. She’s won more World Cup races, 82, overall than any woman. She’s the first skier to win a race on the World Cup circuit for 15 years in a row.
Sustaining that amount of pressure, over so many seasons, is impressive. Doing it while pulling in so many wins is extraordinary. Doing it while pulling in so many wins and injuries is nearly superhuman.
But it’s too easy to focus on the specifics of single races, or single records, instead. Take Vonn’s bronze at Pyeongchang last year. Her top strength has never been the Olympics. Despite her number of overall World Cup victories, by 2018 she’d medalled just twice in the Olympics, both times in Whistler in 2010.
And while what I’m going to say here will be considered heresy: that’s okay. It doesn’t make her less of a legend. This isn’t me making excuses. This is about the fact that purists tend to think that ski racing is more about long-term performance than a one-off event: earning the most points by doing well, consistently, in races over an entire season arguably says a lot more about your talent than how you do over two minutes of a single, high-pressure race that happens just once every four years.
But, largely because U.S. audiences (and television networks) only care about ski racing when it’s the Olympics, most people watching from the U.S. don’t see it that way. And because of all the pressure put on the Olympics for any athlete, but especially U.S. skiers, and especially U.S. skiers as confident and famous as Vonn, they didn’t see Vonn’s performance that way, either.
Vonn’s medal, despite media predictions and her own assertions of confidence, was never in the bag. That’s not only because of her age, which made her the oldest woman to ever win an Olympic medal in ski racing, but her injuries: Remember, this was the season she had that crash at Lake Louise and underwent surgery. And, of course, it’s because no medal is ever in the bag for any racer, no matter how talented. In fact, along with Julia Mancuso, who won silver in 2010, Vonn is the only U.S. woman to have medalled in the Olympic downhill since Picabo Street in 1994.
Meh, said the world.
“Lindsey Vonn misses gold but remains the most human of champions,” read one headline. (Medal? What medal?). USA Today went with the snarkier headline, “Skier Lindsey Vonn leaves the 2018 Winter Olympics with lots of tweets but just one medal.” That story featured a particularly telling quote by one observer: “It’s great skiing, but it reminds me of something that Buddy Werner [a U.S. racer in the 1950s and ’60s] used to say. He said there’s two places in the race, first and last, and I only want one of them.” The critic? Vonn’s own father.
I first met Vonn long before I started reporting on ski racing. It was 2002, two years before her first podium finish. My stepfather, who works in the ski industry, had managed to get us both an invite to dinner with Rossignol’s sponsored athletes in Park City.
She was Lindsey Kildow then. We sat next to each other. She’d just turned 18; I’d just turned 17. I distinctly remember her being slender, pretty, and, at least at that dinner, soft-spoken. She turned down the carrot cake that came for dessert, citing something about having to watch what she ate.
I wrote a local newspaper column back then, so details of that moment have survived. “She told me what it was like being on the race circuit—the glamour, the traveling, and the parties, but also the impossibility of seeing family or friends from home, of attending her own graduation, of dancing at her own prom,” I wrote. “She was the kind of girl I’d be friends with.” So much so, in fact, that we traded email addresses at the end of the dinner and exchanged a couple of messages, long since lost along with my ancient Hotmail account.
Back then, before the celebrity, before the wins, before the records, Vonn was just another American girl with big dreams. At that point, she hadn’t yet cracked the top 20 on a World Cup finish. She was an excellent racer, of course. But so were the others. Now, more than anyone else, including any of the other supremely talented athletes that were sitting at that same table, she’s a household name, an alpine skiing legend—and someone who has put ski racing on the map for millions of Americans.
That’s an incredible achievement.
So not beating Stenmark’s record might stay with Vonn forever. But as she said herself in a November 2018 Youtube video, “I think people forget that I have 20 more wins than any other female in the history of ski racing. I don’t like tooting my own horn, but at the same time, I’ve got to be proud of what I’ve done. The record will not define me.”
I hope it won’t. Because there’s plenty else to celebrate. Including, last but not least, that green light, final podium, and that huge smile.