Early in the winter of 2002, Picabo Street said she had had enough. “Once you’re afraid of speed and have the least hesitation about committing yourself to going as fast as you can to try to win, you might as well not be out there.” Thus did the best female downhiller of her generation step away from the sport that made her famous.
Fast forward to mid-February 2019 to the press conference that Lindsey Vonn held in Are, Sweden, after crashing off course in a super-G race at the Alpine Ski World Championships. “I said to myself, ‘Why am I here in the fence again? I’m getting too old for this —-.’ ”
It was kind of a joke for the packed postrace press conference, but what Vonn said a little later was no joke at all. Irreparable injuries were forcing Vonn to retire from ski racing. “If I hadn’t met Picabo Street when I was 9 years old,” Vonn said, “I wouldn’t be here at all. She was my hero and mentor.”
The 34-year-old Colorado woman who for a couple of years became known in wider sports circles as Tiger Woods’ girlfriend also became known as the all-time winningest female ski racer in history.
In fact, when her injuries forced her out of the sport after nearly 15 years at the World Championships last month, with 82 victories on the World Cup circuit, she was just four short of the 86 wins by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark four decades earlier. As Vonn started this season, there seemed a reasonable chance she could surpass Stenmark to claim the sport’s most impressive milestone.
Of course it must be noted that Vonn and Stenmark competed in essentially different sports, the Swede racing only in the slower technical races, slalom and giant slalom. Vonn raced in all disciplines, her specialty being the 80-mile-per-hour downhills that she approached the only way she knew how — go big or go home. And she has the body to prove it. Her list of injuries over 14 years is staggering, with at least one a year.
She has suffered multiple knee ligament tears, a broken ankle, broken arm, torn tendons, multiple concussions, deep bone bruise and permanent nerve damage, and a history of slamming into the ice-infused downhill tracks at high rates of speed. One season, after a bad cut to her hand, she ended up racing with her ski pole taped to a cast on her wrist.
Last month in Sweden, Vonn took to the start of the super-G and quickly crashed off course and found herself again in the fence. Vonn said she didn’t know exactly what happened, but that she thought she missed seeing a section with broken snow. Her reaction was typical: “I think I’ll be fine,” she said. “I’m going to be really sore, and I think I wrung my bell a little bit.”
Translation: a new concussion. She had hardly recovered from her previous crash in a downhill training run in Cortina, Italy, in January when the Swedish worlds at Are came along. She left the Cortina course in a medical helicopter.
After she gathered herself, in a tearful press conference, Vonn admitted that her career was over, clipped several weeks short of her expectation. The truth was, she said, her knee never heeled from Cortina, and she couldn’t take the pressure of high-speed turns anymore.
Earlier in the month, she wrote in social media: “My body is broken beyond repair and it isn’t letting me have the final season I dreamed of. My body is screaming at me to stop (ski racing).”
But she did ski one more downhill, on Feb. 10 to close out the worlds. A large crowd was on hand to witness the planet’s best-ever female skier, and there were doubts — doubts among coaches, doubts among her fans, doubts in Vonn’s head.
“I never get nervous at the start of a race,” said the one-time Lindsey Kildow, a Minnesota native who married her U.S. Ski Team teammate, Thomas Vonn. “But today I really had a case of nerves. I just wanted to finish my career on a high note.”
Running third on an Are course shortened because of high winds, Vonn showed quickly that she was solid, making smooth if not overly aggressive turns. She pre-jumped the final bump before making the hard lefty down the finishing slope and flashed across the finish line with the lead. Of course there were at least a dozen first-rate downhillers to run behind her.
With the sunlight going in and out, some racers had better luck than others, but Vonn’s run was solid and stood up to several challengers, before the race was over, and Vonn stood on the podium with a bronze medal.
“To me this was an incredible race,” she said. “I fought with my heart the whole way down. I’m going to put this medal right up with the gold.”
And then she stood there, saluting the roaring crowd, trying to make sense of the fact that her fearless, incredibly ferocious racing career had come to an end. A man in a yellow parka walked out to her with a huge bouquet of white flowers and gave her a long embrace during which they whispered, no doubt congratulations on dreams realized, on results topping the record books, on jobs now finished.