Lindsey Vonn broke records for fun during her career but, a year after the Olympic champion retired with more Alpine skiing World Cup wins to her name than any other female racer in history, she happily confesses that one moment stands out way above every other…
That win changed everything,” a contented 35-year-old Lindsey Vonn said as she recalled becoming the USA’s first women’s downhill Olympic champion at the Vancouver 2010 Games.
Entering as the downhill and Super G world champion and winner of five of the six most recent World Cup downhills, Vonn was to many a nailed-on favourite for gold in Canada. But, in a style familiar throughout her decade-and-a-half at the top, the Minnesotan did not make it easy. Just a week before racing was due to start in Whistler, Vonn injured her leg badly in training.
From afar, the pressure seemed almost insurmountable. Billed by much of the media as a face of the Games and long hailed as a sport-defining racer, suddenly Vonn looked like she might crack. But not only did the weather intervene, allowing the USA skier crucial extra recovery time, but Vonn also had a secret resource not many knew about.
“I remember watching Hermann [Maier] crash in the downhill and thinking that he had broken his neck...then he went on to win gold just days later,” Vonn said of the Austrian racer who seemed to defy physics en route to glory at the Olympic Games Nagano 1998. “The memory of him overcoming that crash has always stayed with me.”
Vonn had already attempted one Maier-esque moment. At the Turin 2006 Games, she had been taken to hospital after a major crash in training ahead of her second Olympic appearance. While most mortals would have been delighted to emerge and subsequently finish seventh in the Super G, eighth in the downhill and 14th in the slalom, Vonn knew she had an itch that she had not been able to scratch.
She was not about to let another opportunity slip through her hands. Sixteenth out of the starting gate in the downhill, the then three-time Olympian had defending giant slalom champion and compatriot Julia Mancuso to aim for. By the end of Vonn’s run she and Mancuso were almost a second clear of a field struggling badly with Whistler’s hugely demanding, icy course. But, defying the weight of expectation, Vonn was out on her own, leading by a relatively chasmic 0.56 seconds.
She had done it.
“I had dreamed of winning the Olympics since I was nine years old,” she said. “I felt that I had finally accomplished a goal that I had worked long and hard for, but also I had accomplished a goal that my family had helped me achieve.
“It lifted a weight off my shoulders. It gave myself and my sport recognition. It showed me that my family hadn’t given up so much in vain.”
Not surprisingly, it remains, 10 years later, her favourite sporting memory of all.
“I am an Olympic champion and no one can ever take that away from me or my family,” said Vonn, who also won bronze in the Super G in Vancouver.
10 years... I feel old 🤦🏼♀️ https://t.co/1MJpKdUxug— lindsey vonn (@lindseyvonn) February 17, 2020
The win proved a catalyst, with Vonn going on a golden run the like of which had not been seen before and is only now being matched by her one-time teammate Mikaela Shiffrin. Take, for example, the 2011/12 season. Vonn won five World Cup downhills, four Super Gs, two giant slaloms and a combined. It was more than enough to secure her a fourth overall title.
For a long while it looked like Vonn was certain to surpass Swedish slalom legend Ingemar Stenmark’s iconic record 86 World Cup wins, but her on-the-edge style came with a considerable physical cost. In early 2013 she tore both her anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament, and after re-injuring the same knee she was forced to miss the Olympic Games Sochi 2014.
In 2015 she passed Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell to become the most successful female World Cup skier ever. But even nearing the end, it remained all about the biggest single stage of all.
“Being an Olympian is a great honour and the most special feeling,” Vonn said
To be an Olympian means to put your best foot forward, win or lose. To be a good sport, to act responsibly and with respect towards everyone – teammate or competitor, on and off the playing field.
“The Olympic spirit lives in all of us every day.”
She would go on to cap her career by holding her creaking body together long enough to win bronze in the downhill at PyeongChang 2018, her fourth Olympic Games. The fact that 24 million people watched her do it on USA TV channel NBC speaks volumes for the impact Vonn has had on her compatriots.
For the racer herself, the equation was always simple.
“Hard work, determination, a great team, the ability to never give up and positive attitude are probably the main reasons for my success,” she said.
Her final world event ended in typical style. After crashing heavily in the Super G at the 2019 world championships in Are, Sweden, Vonn proved some things never change by getting off the physio’s bed to take bronze in the downhill.
One final reflection on this magical career focuses not on sport but on something even more all-pervasive.
“Walking in the Opening Ceremony during the 2002 Olympics is probably one of my fondest memories away from the slopes,” Vonn revealed. “Because it was right after 9/11 it was a heightened emotional time for everyone and the Olympics were what really brought our country together. You could actually feel that energy. It was incredible.”