Vonn’s career exploded from there. In 2004, she won her first World Cup downhill race.. In 2007, she placed second in the downhill and super-G at the World Championships. Between 2008 and 2010, she won three consecutive World Cup overall titles, plus a gold medal in the downhill at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. In 2012 she beat out the competition at the World Cup once more, winning the overall title for the fourth time.
But if you’ve ever rooted for Vonn or even looked up from dinner while the Winter Olympics are on, you know her triumphs have been punctuated with brutal catastrophes. Ahead of the 2006 Olympics, Vonn crashed in a practice run, toppled over her skis while she went over a jump, was launched 10 feet in the air, and landed on her back. A helicopter arrived to airlift her out; she couldn’t move. She was sure she’d broken her back. When she recounted the crash in an interview in 2010, she recalled how she’d bargained with herself in the hospital. If she needed two or three operations, how soon would she be able to ski again? Ten months? Twelve? Meanwhile, the doctors tried to keep her still—she risked permanent damage to her spinal cord. In the end she was just bruised. She returned to the slopes within a week, and competed in four events despite her injuries. But she didn’t make the podium. Then in 2013 she ruptured the cruciate ligament in her knee at Worlds; nine months later, skiing faster than most of us drive on the average commute, she fell and tore the same ligament again. The list goes on: broken ankles, gruesome bruises, a fracture so bad in her arm doctors worried she might never be able to write her own name.
For those of us who’ve struggled to get back on our bikes after a tumble or to go back to school with our bullies still inside, her blind resolve isn’t just impressive, it’s so total it’s almost hard to believe. When I put it to her like that, she laughs a little. “I’ve never been afraid,” she pauses, as if to consult her memories. But then turns serious: “No, even when the injuries and the crashes seemed to endlessly pile up, I never changed. I never was afraid.”
Her fearlessness is both what made her successful and what pushed her past genuine limits. “It’s how I was able to continue to win,” she says. “But it’s also been my biggest downfall.” Because while other people protect themselves from pain, Vonn races toward it. Hers is a precarious discipline, and she has known since she started that she had no time to waste. (Most female skiers retire around 30; famed four-time Olympic gold medalist Janica Kostelić was so battered she retired at 25.) Now that the worst has happened and she can’t ski like she used to, she’s relieved that she never held back. Not even when it almost killed her.
What was she supposed to do? Prove people right?
“A billion times, the media said I’ve been injured too much, I’m not good enough, I’m washed up. I’m too old or too broken. That I need a strong man. That I can’t do this,” Vonn rattles off the list, and her voice picks up. When she’s animated, she talks like someone with a countdown clock next to her, like she has one last finish line to cross. But there are no more races to win and no more misconceptions to upend. So—?
Vonn is faster than me, of course. She beats me to it: No, she doesn’t intend to retreat from the public now, much less to concede some kind of defeat. There’s so much she wants to do, and if she’s honest, such a giant void to fill. Vonn has been competitive since birth, she thinks. She’s the oldest of five kids, the de facto leader of the group. And success has strengthened the impulse. “The harder I work, the more I want to win.” As a kid, that made it hard to make friends. “I would finish a race and all the 14-year-olds at the bottom would be crying because a 10-year-old had beaten them,” she said in a 2010 interview.
When we meet last month, it’s almost sundown and she’s been up since 4 a.m. She takes off her heels within seconds. Then she approaches the sandwich plate in the photo studio like it’s piled with manna. (In fact, it’s chicken-mozzarella.) She pauses for about three minutes to refuel, then she’s on her feet. Instinct for Vonn; get back up again.
Published at Fri, 08 Mar 2019 16:47:32 +0000