Lindsey Vonn’s legacy? She’s the best ski racer ever, period
Desire and longevity added an extra dimension
February 1, 2019
The end is here.
In some ways, it almost feels like it’s a death in the family. Of course, Lindsey Vonn is still here — she announced her retirement on Friday, effective at the end of the 2019 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships World Ski Championships in Are, Sweden, in roughly two weeks — but we’ve known her so long in the role of athlete.
Now 34, Vonn made her first World Cup start on Nov. 16, 2000, in Park City, Utah, when she was 16. George W. Bush had just been elected president — well, that was a work in progress at the time. Sept. 11 was still just another date on the calendar.
Nineteen years is long career in any sport. In World Cup ski racing, where visits to the orthopedist seem about as common as annual checkups for us most mere mortals, it’s a lifetime.
Through four different presidencies, two recessions, the birth of a technological era and other assorted tumults, Lindsey Vonn has been the best ski racer ever, regardless of country, regardless of gender.
We can talk about 82 career World Cup wins, four World Cup championships, 20 discipline globes, Olympic gold (2010) and the 2009 Worlds double championship, but two factors set her apart — her desire and her sustained excellence.
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In December 2011, the annual Birds of Prey stop went an extra week since there was no snow in Europe. We got two extra men’s tech races, which included Ted Ligety beating this upstart Marcel Hirscher in a giant slalom, and women’s super-G.
Before the debut of the adjacent Raptor, the women’s course built for the 2015 Worlds, Vonn and the ladies were going to ski Birds of Prey. But the International Ski Federation rerouted the course to omit the Golden Eagle Jump.
At a pre-race news conference, among a few questions I asked was, “So, Lindsey, are you disappointed that Golden Eagle won’t be a part of the course?”
She didn’t know the course had been modified and, if looks could kill, well, I wasn’t going to see her win that super-G on Birds of Prey — Golden Eagle or not — later that week.
Vonn wanted Golden Eagle, and even if it were a super-G, she wanted to take The Flyway and The Brink, portions of the downhill course, as well because she was Lindsey Bleeping Vonn.
Too often, the sports world relegates women’s sports to the sideline. We see the U.S. Women’s Soccer team once every four years for its World Cup and forget about it. NCAA women’s sports are an afterthought for a national audience, maybe with the exception of basketball, though it is in the shadow of its male counterpart when March Madness rolls around.
Vonn blew that notion out of the water. She really had the “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” attitude of “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” (To be precise, Gary Cole’s character Reese Bobby coined the phrase, but we’re veering here.)
“Two X chromosomes or an X and Y, who cares? I’m going to win,” was Vonn’s thought process.
In Vonn’s world, female athletes can be as driven to win as their male counterparts and it’s socially acceptable. You don’t see this often. Serena Williams made waves when she argued with umpire Carlos Ramos during the U.S. Open last year, eventually with the latter taking a game away from her during the final.
All debated whether if a male acted like Williams — breaking a racket (often done by men with no penalty) and arguing (rather tamely compared to the gents) — would he have been penalized? No.
Of course, female athletes have a tenacious desire to win, but few have worn it on their shoulder as a badge of honor like Vonn.
What if …
Lindsey and Serena also have another thing in common. They win a lot. To put into perspective 82 World Cup wins, Alberto Tomba and Franz Klammer, absolute legends of their eras, combined for 76 victories. It takes the three best American male skiers of all time — Bode Miller (33 wins), Ligety (25) and Phil Mahre (27) — to beat Vonn 85-82.
Vonn was so dominant in her prime, the rest of the field seemed to be racing for second. She’s pretty much lapped Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Proll, the previous women’s leader in wins with 62.
Sure, Stenmark’s 86-win mark seems safe, for now — hello, Mikaela Shiffrin — but, remember, he only did giant slalom and slalom, claiming 46 and 40 wins, respectively. Winning 82 times, mostly in speed, is remarkable, given the perils.
And the perils accumulated over the years, most notably in the opening super-G of 2013 worlds when Vonn’s right knee exploded. What if, what if …
In a testament to Vonn, there really isn’t a what if. Remember how Ligety won the same week that Vonn skied at Beaver Creek? Lindsey’s won 23 more times since that injury robbed her of her essential invincibility. Having had back and knee injuries, Ligety hasn’t won since October 2015 and has 25 wins in his career.
We all wanted a happier ending, passing Stenmark and a traditional Lindsey throwdown in Lake Louise, Alberta, in December. The worlds in the next two weeks will have to do.
But it is an ending — the end of an era.
Sports editor Chris Freud can be reached at email@example.com or at 970-748-2934.