There was something suitable about the way Lindsey Vonn barreled down that downhill in Sweden last week at the Alpine World Ski Championships.
At one point she careened at 73 mph, her skis slicing through the snow-packed hill with the same fearlessness and skill that had defined her career.
You wondered how it was possible. You wondered how this woman, who five days earlier had caught a gate, crashed face-first during the Super-G and blackened her eye and bruised a rib, could summon the strength and courage to test a course mired by fog and wind.
“Of course I’m sore,” she would say. “Even before the crash I was sore. So I’m just sore on top of sore. My neck is killing me. But at the end of the day, no one cares if my neck hurts; they only care if I win.”
Of course. This was exactly who Vonn was during her career. Her injuries were voluminous, her knees now encased in braces, her bones fused by rods. But none of them were daunting enough to ever make her think about quitting.
Consider this: Vonn has broken her right arm, fractured her left knee, broken her left ankle, broken her right leg, suffered a concussion, tore ligaments and numerous cuts and bruises.
“I remember I had to practice writing the alphabet every day to try to regain the use of my hand,” Vonn once said.
And so here she was, in the final race of the most sensational downhill skiing career any woman has ever had, channeling her energy and desire into one final winning run.
Not long after snowplowing her way to one last stop and raising her goggles, Vonn received the news that she’d won a bronze medal. Ilka Stuhec of Slovenia took gold. She finished 0.23 seconds ahead of silver medalist Corinne Suter of Switzerland and 0.49 ahead of Vonn.
Her career was over. At 34, she had become the oldest woman to ever medal at the World Championship. Yes, it was quite the finish.
“I’m literally tapped out, I can’t cry anymore,” Vonn said. “I want to cry but it’s dry. … It’s not an easy thing to feel your bones hitting together and continue to push through it.
“I knew that I was capable of pushing through the pain one last time and I did that. … Every athlete has their own obstacles and I faced mine head on today and I conquered them.”
Her decision to retire came after great contemplation. But Vonn knew it was time. Her body had begun to communicate in a way not even she could refute. Her knees were killing her, the kind of pain that doesn’t just inhibit you athletically, but can make life a living hell.
Vonn had originally planned to retire at the end of the year, but common sense prevailed and she finally decided that last week’s event would be last. And why shouldn’t it have been? It was on these the same hills that Vonn’s career began in 2007 by winning two silver medals.
“I was weighing in my mind the risk of putting it all out there, crashing and getting injured again, as opposed to finishing where I wanted to,” Vonn said. “It was an internal battle.”
Appropriately, one of the first to greet her at the bottom of the hill was Ingemar Stenmark, the iconic Swedish champion. It was his mark of 86 World Cup victories Vonn had hoped to tie or surpass before her retirement. But she would fall four short.
Knowing it would be her last race, Vonn reached out to Stenmark in hopes he would attend. She even wore Sweden’s colors – blue and yellow – to pay tribute. And he was there to create perhaps the greatest photo opportunity in the sport’s history,
“He doesn’t really like the spotlight, but he deserves to have it,” Vonn said. “I was just so grateful that he was there. Honestly, it’s a perfect ending to my career.”
The victory added one last exclamation point to her fabulous career: She is now the first female skier to win medals at six different world championships. This final bronze was her fifth downhill medal at the worlds, tying Annemarie Moser-Proell and Christel Cranz.
Moser-Proll, the Austrian, is currently second to Vonn in World Cup titles with 62. But the greatest challenge to her status will likely come from Mikaela Shiffrin, who is 11 years younger than Vonn, but just 30 wins behind her.
What’s next for Vonn, aside from improved health, is pretty much whatever she wants. She’s talked about being a businesswoman, starting a family. It’s also likely she’ll have the chance to be an Olympic commentator and an actress.
“I’m looking forward to just chilling out a bit and recovering everything, including my mind,” Vonn said. “It’s been a lot to process. The nice thing is that, in the real world I’m actually pretty young. I have felt really old for a long time, because I’m racing with girls that are like 15 years younger than me.”