The USA’s Lindsey Vonn has skied her last race. Signing off at the 2019 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Åre (SWE) on 10 February, the 34-year-old defied the pain in her knees to land bronze in the downhill, the final achievement of a truly outstanding career in which she won her country’s first ever Olympic women’s downhill gold medal.
“One last time, I will stand in the starting gate,” said Vonn on Instagram prior to her Swedish swansong. “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.”
Few athletes have stage-managed their departures as well as Vonn. But then again few athletes have the stature of the American great, a stature she has attained through her outstanding achievements and her personality. Make no mistake, she is a star with a reach far beyond the slopes.
Bowing out in style
In taking her leave of competitive skiing in Åre, she faced the media, fans and her opponents with the same generosity of spirit. Hampered by a knee injury sustained in November 2018, Vonn has had to cut short her final season, though it did not prevent her from taking one last shot at world championship glory. The closing chapter of her glittering career began in the super-G, where, not for the first time, she fell, straddling a gate and crashing into the safety nets.
The American picked herself up and five days later hurtled down the slopes again in the downhill, her final career outing. Wearing the no.3 bib for the occasion, Vonn was not there to wave to the crowd or go through the motions. Just as she has always done, she gave it everything she had, intent on winning one last time despite all the demands she has placed on her battered body and despite her relative lack of form: ninth and 10th in two downhills in Cortina d’Ampezzo (ITA) in January.
On a course shortened due to high winds, she produced a typically determined descent, maintaining a high-speed tuck throughout and showcasing her considerable abilities as a downhiller. Her time took her ahead of Germany’s Viktoria Rebensburg, who hurried over to join her in the finish area and promptly saluted her by dropping to one knee.
Moments later, Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark – the winner of a record 86 World Cup races – appeared on the scene to hand her a bouquet of flowers. Reduced to tears by this stage, Vonn had once again made her mark on skiing history by taking to the top of the leaderboard. Though she would not remain there, she eventually took a somewhat unexpected place on the podium alongside Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec and Switzerland’s Corinne Suter.
An insatiable appetite for records
“Everyone knows my mentality,” she said moments afterwards. “Everyone knows I risk everything all the time. It’s the reason why I win so much but it’s also the reason I crashed so much. And I have had so many injuries. I risked it all today. I was so nervous. I wanted more than anything to finish strong. I didn’t want to finish in the fence as I did in the super-G. It was an internal battle but in the end I won against my emotions. I was able to execute my plan. I also broke the record of six medals in six different world championships.”
That tireless pursuit of records is another reason why Vonn kept on skiing. After overtaking Anne-Marie Moser Pröll’s 62 career World Cup wins, she set her sights on Stenmark’s overall record. Her knees decided it was not to be, however, and the American has had to content herself with 82 victories (a tally that comprises at least one win in each event, from the slalom to the downhill). Her storied career also yielded a record 20 crystal globes, eight world championship medals and three Olympic medals.
An Olympic love story
A few days after retiring, she took to Instagram to recall the happiest moment of her career: “On this day 9 years ago my life changed. Winning gold at the Vancouver Olympics was the highlight of my career both personally and professionally. Since I’m retired now I’ve been thinking a lot about the past and it makes me happy to know I always gave my heart to skiing. Those Olympics were a prime example... But now @subbanator (PK Subban) has my heart and finally the future looks even brighter than the past.”
In the immediate future will come a knee operation scheduled for the spring. And whatever the next few years have in store for Vonn, one thing is for sure: her legacy is huge, such has been the style with which she has competed, the excitement she has created, and the excellence she has maintained at the very highest level. She bids farewell to her sport with the finest career record ever put together by a female skier. The question is, what will skiing look like now that the larger-than-life Vonn has exited the stage?
“There are lively characters like Sofia Goggia,” she explained. “She has a lot of personality. She has charisma. On the men’s side Marcel Hirscher is still going, and Kjetil Jansrud. On the women’s side there is Michaela Shiffrin too. There are a lot of people who have the potential to grow the sport. It’s not just about success; it’s also about doing everything you can to promote the sport. It’s part of your job as an athlete.”
The fact remains that a glorious chapter of skiing history came to an end on the slopes of Åre and that the sport will never quite be the same without the woman from the Minnesota hills. And there seems little question that we will be talking about her for a very long time.
The American is sure to remain an important figure on the Olympic scene. A Winter Youth Olympic Games ambassador since the competition’s inception in Innsbruck in 2012, Vonn agreed in December 2017 to return to the role for Lausanne 2020, the first international figure to sign up for the third Winter YOG. After all, sharing her experience and her dreams is an essential part of who she is.
“When I got to the Olympics at 17 years old it was a fairy-tale,” she said. “I was so excited. I had worked so hard to get to there and my family had sacrificed so much. My dreams stemmed from the Olympics. The Olympics have a way of allowing kids to dream about the potential of success down the road. The Olympic rings stand for dreams.”
For the inimitable Vonn and for everyone who has admired her over the years, that dream remains very much alive.