For those who don’t head to the mountains in the wintertime, downhill skiing is somebody else’s sport. The swooshing down the hills, the snowplowing at their bottoms are things the rich and famous do at Val-D’Isere, Whistler, St. Moritz or Aspen.
Of course, that changes every quadrennial when the Winter Olympics roll around. Our attention turns to events like the slalom and Super G and which skiers in the world can master them.
So maybe that how you know about Lindsay Vonn. But maybe you understand there’s much more about her than she used to date Tiger Woods and now is hanging out with P.K. Subban, a defenseman with the NHL’s Nashville Predators.
Of all the females who have ever competed internationally, Vonn is by far the greatest. But time has taken a toll on her physically and now we’re hearing she might be ready to retire.
The turning point may have last week in Cortina, Italy when Vonn, who has always excelled in the Super G, failed to finish a run. She made it halfway down the course before veering left and stepping outside the ropes.
Last November, she crashed while training on Cooper Mountain in Colorado and was forced to miss three races before the end of the year.
This was not the Vonn we’re accustomed to seeing. She fearlessly attacks dangerous courses as if they were bunny hills. But the pain in her knees finally caught up to her, causing her to reconsider her stated goal of competing through the end of the year.
That would have given her the chance at Canada’s Lake Louise to win one more World Cup and continue chasing the great Ingemar Stenmark’s record for most World Cup titles (86). Vonn has won 82.
“If I get that, it would be a dream come true,” said Vonn in October. “If I don’t, I’ve still had an incredible career no matter what.”
This latest injury, to a peroneal nerve, is what had made her doubt herself.
“I remain hopeful that we can fix it,” Vonn said on Instagram. “I’m taking things day by day and we will see what happens. I know that I might not get the ending to my career that I had hoped for, but if there is a chance, I will take it.”
Vonn is 34 and has been skiing competitively for 18 years. She has sustained every type of injury you could imagine and has managed to bounce up every time.
In January 2018, USA Today compiled the sobering list of injuries that have sidelined Vonn, ranging from fractured ankles, to broken arms and torn knee ligaments. She also once badly cut a finger working her way around the bottle of champagned during a photo shoot.
The worst of them all likely came in 2006 at the Turin Olympics when she had to be airlifted off the mountain after a fall. She bruised a thigh, injured her back and pelvis. But she was back on the course within two days.
“It’s definitely weird,” she said back then, “going from the hospital bed to the start gate.”
But she is much more than a skier now. She is an international celebrity, as prone to walk a red carpet as ski an icy slope. And she has earned around $5 million in her career, certainly enough to set herself up in a comfortable – and safe – lifestyle.
At this point it seems incomprehensible her health will allow her to chase the mark of Stenmark, who retired after the 1989 World Cup season.
As it is, she already has 20 more Cup titles than Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Proll, who is second, but only 30 more than Mikaela Shiffrin, 23, the American who only began competing in 2012. Shiffrin is a major star, the best female skier in the United States and the greatest threat to Vonn’s legacy.
If there is anything left to prove, it might be one more Olympic medal to add to the downhill she won in Vancouver in 2010. The 2020 Games are in Beijing and by that time she will be 36.
What has made Vonn stand apart, in addition to all the championships, is the verve with which she conducts herself. She has never allowed herself to be stereotyped, athletic enough to train with men, feminine enough to appear in Sports Illustrated’s bathing suit issue, human enough to admit she’d spent much of her life battling depression.