There is a beautiful recklessness in alpine skiing, and no one rode that edge better than Lindsey Vonn. Take this, her last week of competition as the perfect illustration. In the Super-G at the World Championships in Are Sweden, she sped into an epic crash and received a black eye and bruised a rib. Then, in the last race of her professional career five days later, that same speed won the bronze medal in the downhill.
She hit 73 miles per hour on that last run, according to The Denver Post.
“You have to search for that line of disaster every time you compete,” said senior ESPN The Magazine writer Wayne Drehs, who has visited Vonn and written extensively on her comeback. “Every stage of her career she is either ending up in the fence or on the podium.”
Let’s start with the podium. Vonn tied the record for overall World Cup championships with four. She has three Olympic medals, including one gold in downhill in 2010, and a comeback bronze in the downhill in 2018 in South Korea. She leaves the sport with 82 wins in World Cup events, second only to Ingemar Stenmark with 86. At every step, Vonn drove Olympic ratings and interest in women’s sports.
“She demanded more prime time coverage because how can you not want to watch a woman who was driven to be the best there ever was, every single time she skied,” said gold-winning Olympic soccer player Julie Foudy in an email. “There was no compromising for Vonn. How often did we watch her come back from a knee surgery or broken limb or major accident, and there she was at the top of the mountain, smiling and eager for more medals.”
The 34-year-old is the first American to dominate a sport with deep roots in Europe, to win a gold medal, and to do it all as her knees became less and less stable. There are only so many epic wipeouts a body can take before eroding structural integrity.
“Lindsey Vonn is the ultimate competitor,” said gold medal winning Olympic swimmer Donna de Varona. “Fearless, she has overcome incredible obstacles to remain strong for her racing passion. I am sure her decision to leave what she loves has been painful. We will miss her brilliant presence on the slopes.”
You can easily find video of the 2013 crash on the internet. Vonn is pummeling the gates of the Super-G at the Alpine World Championships in Austria. She takes the air as part of a drop on the course, but the landing isn’t right, she screams and tumbles to a stop with her leg at a sickening angle.
She had torn her ACL, her MCL and fractured her tibia in her right knee. She had one year to recover before the Sochi Olympics.
Drehs covered Vonn as she attempted to manage the pain and weakness that comes from having two surgically repaired knees. We have come so far when it comes to the science behind injuries and training. Careers are extended, and with the rise of prize money and endorsements, the incentive to get back in the game is real – whatever the sport.
But with Vonn, that drive to recover has seemed as risky as the way she approaches the gates on a mountain.
“I would almost say borderline unhealthy,” Drehs said. “Where sometimes family and friends were like, ‘Are you sure you want to push yourself to this extreme?’”
Vonn was not able to make it back for Sochi, and she missed all of 2014. She did get back on the slopes, but she wasn’t able to maintain the stability needed to prevent further injury. She broke her left ankle in 2015 and fractured her left knee in 2016. Later that year, she broke her right arm. Earlier this year, Vonn just revealed there was another knee surgery.
After each injury, as recovery from one injury preceded the next, winning the bronze in South Korea last year was a particularly sweet moment. At 33, she was the oldest woman to win an Alpine skiing medal. NBC notes that 24 million viewers tuned in to see Vonn win that night.
Research from the University of Alabama showed that it was the first Olympics in which prime time coverage of women’s sports eclipsed that devoted to men. Not only did NBC follow the medals, it followed the athletes that viewers were invested in.
“And beyond being an excellent skier who oozed courage, she had celebrity, she had charisma, she had a swagger that demanded she be covered,” Foudy noted. “As a viewer, we forgot we were watching gender, we were simply watching an athlete win that moment. It reminded us that this is what sports should be.”
We’ve been saying goodbye to Vonn in stages.
There wasn’t just the inevitability of repeated injuries, but Vonn herself started to wonder if beating Stenmark’s 86 wins was worth the physical toll. Stenmark was there to greet her in Sweden after she won her last bronze. He is notoriously shy, but made the appearance out of respect for Vonn’s accomplishments.
It was a poignant moment, a connection between two athletes who risked calamity for greatness every time they left the starting gate.
“My body is broken beyond repair and it isn’t letting me have the final season I dreamed of,” Vonn wrote in an Instagram post earlier this month.
And yet, Vonn’s career was the dream actualized. She pushed herself well beyond her limits in every sense, and made for thrilling viewing.