World Championships 2019: Women’s Downhill
Date: Sunday, 10 February Live: 11:15-13:15 GMT BBC Red Button, Sport website and app, connected TV Highlights: Ski Sunday, 17:00-18:00, BBC Two
“If you fall, pick yourself up,” is part of skier Lindsey Vonn’s Instagram bio.
While inspirational quotes on social media are widely parodied, there have been countless moments in Vonn’s career where she has physically and metaphorically embodied that phrase.
Having crashed in spectacular fashion in the penultimate race of her career on Tuesday, the 34-year-old, statistically the most successful female ski racer ever, will compete for the final time this Sunday in the downhill at the Alpine World Championships in Sweden.
Considered by many to be the most famous face in skiing, she retires as a former Olympic and world champion, with 82 World Cup race wins to her name.
Her ‘never-say-die’ attitude
While Vonn’s fearlessness and determination to get back up have helped her become one of the most decorated American athletes in history, it has too often been her undoing.
British ex-skier Chemmy Alcott, who raced against Vonn during her own career, told BBC Sport that Vonn’s mental strength was her greatest asset.
“Even if she wasn’t always the best technically, she had a mental strength and an unwavering belief in herself that made her almost always unbeatable,” said Alcott.
Vonn finally admitted it was time to “listen to her body” on Saturday, adding: “I have always pushed the limits of ski racing and it has allowed me to have amazing success but also dramatic crashes.”
This announcement came just two days before she experienced another huge crash during the super-G in Are on Tuesday, although after a few minutes she was able to ski away having sustained “just a black eye, sore ribs and stiff neck”.
The way she shrugs off those three injuries as “not exactly what I had in mind”, tells you all you need to know, really.
Alcott, who watched the crash on TV, said: “You could see the amount of power she was putting behind each of those turns at the top of the mountain. She wasn’t there for a farewell lap – she was going for the win.
“That’s why this season has been so hard to watch because when she first got injured, we all thought “ah it’s just another one – she will come back from this”, but this time is just a step too far.”
What she has done for her sport…
Her peers say they will be indebted to her for helping the sport progress.
Alcott recalled: “When you saw Vonn’s name on the start list, it would genuinely make everyone step up their game. She really did push us all to work and train harder – mainly because she was so far ahead of us.”
She even launched a bid to race against men in a World Cup event in 2018, just to see how she got on.
“I know I’m not going to win, but I would like to at least have the opportunity to try,” she said in an interview with the Denver Post.
“I think I’ve won enough World Cup races [76 at that point]. I should have enough respect within the industry to be able to have that opportunity.”
She has made no secret of the fact she wanted to keep racing until she broke the all-time record for the most number of World Cup wins, surpassing Ingemar Stenmark’s 86 – she was close to doing it too, just five wins away from the Swede’s record.
But if Vonn has demonstrated anything, it’s that five more wins are not easy to come by. One win is hard for most.
“I’ve come to the realisation that my career is not the sum of this record. I’m proud of myself no matter what,” she said in 2018, perhaps knowing then that her body was not going to carry her to that 87th crystal globe.
… and what she will continue to do for her sport
But Vonn isn’t just a record breaker – she is determined to leave a legacy behind her.
“The lack of arrogance from such a superstar is staggering,” said Alcott.
“She has an amazing friendship with, and has actually mentored one of her closest rivals, Sofia Goggia, over the past couple of years.”
But that seems to be the kind of person Vonn is – rather than close the door behind her, she chose to lay the tracks – so to speak – for the next generation of superstars, and they all credit her as their inspiration.
In a touching post on her Instagram, Goggia remembered having a proper Vonn ‘fangirl’ moment as a 23-year-old rookie.
“It seems strange now but asking for a photo with her required a healthy dose of courage. I was deeply moved. It was incredible how gracefully she responded to my request for a picture. How happy I was! How shaky I was!” said the Italian.
Just over two years later, Goggia won Olympic gold in the downhill, beating her idol into bronze by less than half a second.
“To me [she is] like the perfect woman,” continued Goggia.
“Untouchable and unreachable on the ski slope, a legend, an icon of our sport, the idol that had inspired generations of skiers and that in my darkest moments had always given me the strength to carry on and continue to dream.”
And of course, there’s the impact she had on 23-year-old American Mikaela Shiffrin, who already has 54 World Cup wins and will – if she stays on her current trajectory – surpass her compatriot’s record.
“I don’t know if I could fill Lindsey’s shoes, the way that she has worn them,” Shiffrin said in 2018.
How she changed attitudes
Seven-time British national champion Alcott, who jokingly revels in reminding her friend Vonn she beat her at the 2002 junior world championships, recalls their early days of racing.
“When we started competing back in 2000, it was a very different looking sport for us girls. Everyone thought they had to be bigger – even a bit masculine – to be strong and powerful in that way,” said Alcott.
“But then along came Lindsey – she showed you could be fast and feminine. It sounds silly but people really judged you for wearing make-up, but Lindsey made everyone realise they should feel confident in who you are.”
It’s this that has also made Vonn an incredible commercial success, signing multimillion dollar deals with huge brands such as Under Armour, Red Bull and Rolex.
In 2016, her memoir ‘Strong is the New Beautiful’ became a New York Times best-seller.
Who she is as a person…
“Ski racing is what I’ve done but it’s not who I am, and I think I’m just kind of realising that now, so hopefully people can see that as well,” said Vonn last week.
Her foundation awards financial grants to young people (predominantly women) to help pay for “education, sports, and enrichment programs” for athletes who demonstrate the “ability to overcome obstacles, discover grit, and pursue a passion”. Sounds familiar.
For someone as high-profile as Vonn, there has been a distinct lack of controversy in her career, although she did receive a stream of online abuse after she spoke out against US President Donald Trump, with some people saying they hope she’d break her neck.
“That’s what bullies want you to do. I stand by my values, I’m not going to back down,” she retorted.
Vonn is never without her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Lucy – and we mean NEVER – but Lucy isn’t the only four-legged companion of Vonn’s.
During the 2005 World Cup season, a cow was “offered” as the top prize in Val d’Isere. Most people accept the $5,000 cheque instead – not Lindsey (then Kildow).
“I picked her over the $5,000 because she was really cute,” she recalled.
“I heard before the run that they were giving a cow and that it would be in the finish. I got really excited. I remembering thinking: “I want a pet cow.” At the prize-giving ceremony, they told me to give the cow back and they’d give me a check. I freaked out at them, “No! You can’t take her away. You said she was my cow!”
The cow was reportedly worth a lot more than $5,000 and was also pregnant, “so I actually got two cows!” she said.
Nine years later, at the same race, she won Winnie, a third cow, and appeared to be just as delighted about that.
In her post-race press conference in Are on Tuesday, Vonn said she wanted to be remembered as “something more than just a ski racer”.
No need to worry about that, Lindsey.
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