During the summer, sitting by herself inside the first house she has ever owned, Lindsey Vonn took stock of the rollicking past decade in the public eye.
She had built an internationally recognized brand that transcends skiing, been married and divorced, won an Olympic gold medal and a record 67 World Cup races, conspicuously dated Tiger Woods for three years, and endured multiple crashes that broke bones and led to two complex knee operations.
Months earlier, her family had beseeched her to quit ski racing. At 31 years old, after all, she was in a sport dominated by 20-somethings and even teenagers, with most of her contemporaries retired, incapacitated or on lengthy sabbaticals.
“I was alone this summer for the first time in a long time,” Vonn said recently, relaxing on a restaurant patio in the Vail village. “And it was good for me to be on my own. I worked really hard in the gym and remembered that I’m the one making my decisions, and I’m strong enough to do that.
“Sometimes I get reliant on other people. I had time to focus on myself. Even if it was a hard summer.”
In the end, in her living room here, Vonn came to a conclusion.
“I’m the last one standing of my generation of racers,” she said. “After my second knee surgery, pretty much everyone in my family said, ‘Lindsey, don’t you want to walk when you’re older?’ And I said, Don’t worry, there’s going to be some new medical procedure and I’ll have new knees and it’ll be no problem. It never crossed my mind to retire.”
Instead, with her career at a crossroad and some personal life goals — like having a family — postponed indefinitely, Vonn has charted a final competitive stage that begins when the World Cup resumes this month.
It is a three-year plan with three primary objectives: dominate a women’s racing circuit now populated by competitors 10 years her junior; return to the Winter Olympics in 2018; and perhaps shatter ski racing’s most time-honored records, including those set by men.
“It’s an opportunity to put an exclamation point on my career and take it to a completely new level,” said Vonn, whose immediate aim is her fifth overall title.
Doug Lewis, a two-time Alpine Olympian and longtime World Cup television analyst, echoed many in the ski world who consider Vonn the overall favorite in the coming World Cup season, although he added an important caveat.
“The only thing stopping Vonn, and everyone knows this, is Vonn herself,” Lewis said. “She is so aggressive and fearless, even in training, she gets hurt.”
If Vonn can remain healthy and compete in four of the five Alpine disciplines for the next several seasons, anything is possible, even surpassing a mark once considered unassailable: Ingemar Stenmark’s 86 career World Cup victories, the most by any skier.
“That would be amazing — if I end up being close to that, maybe I don’t retire after three years,” she said, laughing. “I love planning, but things aren’t always predictable.”
Indeed, the last five years have hardened Vonn to life’s capricious turns, experiences that have changed the small-town girl who left her Minnesota suburb when she was 11 to begin a globe-trotting pursuit of an Olympic ski racing dream.
That goal was achieved at the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010, when she became the first American woman to win the Olympic downhill. Wealthy, renowned and at the time married to a fellow Olympian, Thomas Vonn, who became her manager and coach, Vonn appeared on top of her world.
But the first of several harrowing injuries came the next winter. Within roughly 18 months, Lindsey and Thomas Vonn had separated. A messy divorce took more than a year, although Vonn rebounded with perhaps her best season.
By early 2013, she was dating Woods. In the world championships in February of that year, she hurtled over the tips of her skis and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. Eager to be ready for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Vonn accelerated her rehabilitation and was training at high speeds by November, when she tumbled headfirst at 60 mph again, shredding her surgically reconstructed ligament.
Surgery knocked her out of the Sochi Games. Vonn came back to win eight times during the winter of 2014-15, which gave her the career record for World Cup victories by a woman. Then, training in New Zealand last summer, she broke her left ankle. A week ago, she also needed stitches to close wounds to her right thumb when she was bitten trying to break up a fight between her two dogs.
Assessing all the twists and turns since 2010, Vonn rolled her eyes and made a gesture with her right hand that mimicked a roller-coaster ride.
“It’s been quite the journey, hasn’t it?” she said, smiling.
She tried to explain, first the tabloid turns.
“Thomas was really my first boyfriend, so I didn’t have a lot of dating experience,” she said. “So jumping into a relationship right away after getting a divorce was probably not the smartest move on my part.
“I don’t regret anything. I loved Tiger, and I had an amazing three years with him. But it was a learning experience as well. With every relationship, you learn what you need and what you want in a partner.”
As for the injuries, Vonn said the second major knee operation was the greatest test of her resolve.
“I had worked so hard to get back after the first knee surgery, so it was difficult to stay positive and see the light at the end of the tunnel when I had to do it all again,” Vonn said. “I was devastated missing the Olympics. If I had been healthy and done well at the Sochi Olympics, who knows? I might have retired.
“But that’s not what happened. You sign up for the whole journey. I’m sure I’m a better person for it.”
The downtime recovering from her second knee operation also gave Vonn an opportunity to establish an all-girls youth development foundation in her name. The organization hosted its first events this year, including a speakers’ series and summer camps, for athletes and nonathletes alike.
Children may someday be in Vonn’s future, although the she does not know when.
“I don’t have a boyfriend, and you need one of those to start a family,” she said. “I really want a family; I come from a big family. But I’m not going to force anything. I have a limited window to accomplish my ski-racing dreams, so I don’t want to give that up for really anything.”
Vonn, who has been back on skis since late October without major discomfort in her injured ankle, expects her first race this year to be a World Cup giant slalom in Aspen on Nov. 28. The defending discipline champion in downhill and super-G, she was third in the chase for the overall World Cup championship last season.
With last season’s overall winner, Anna Fenninger, sidelined because of major knee surgery and the runner-up, Tina Maze, taking the year off, Vonn is the only racer in the field who has won an overall title.
Her primary rival, her teammate Mikaela Shiffrin, 20, considers Vonn the leading candidate for the overall title, telling reporters at the season-opening race late last month that Vonn was “the best bet” because of her experience and the comeback she made last year.
Vonn will return to competition buoyed by her performances last winter, which she said shocked many of her younger competitors, although she was not specifically speaking about Shiffrin, whom Vonn called the favorite for this season’s overall title.
“Last year, I could see it in their eyes — they had completely written me off,” she said. “And by the end of the season, I had changed their tune.
“So I’m back, and I’m not nervous anymore or feeling pressure. I’m just 100 percent out there to win races, and that is a cool position to be in.”
In Vail, Vonn strolled the familiar streets she has called home since 1995, when she arrived as an aspiring preteen Olympic racer.
She hardly stood out then in this skiing mecca, but her presence has a different effect now. Even with the village all but deserted on the eve of the ski season, shopkeepers called out to Vonn as she walked along. Passers-by asked to pose for pictures with her. Elsewhere, without noticing, Vonn passed a 12-foot-high picture of herself on the wall of a parking garage.
Last year, Vonn moved into her new Vail house, which was the first home she bought after many years of living in condos or residence hotels. She quickly had two large, lighted glass trophy cases built above a living room fireplace. Her awards, chiefly the ornate, crystal World Cup globes awarded to skiers who win the overall titles and the season-long discipline championships, had been mostly kept in storage. Before last winter, she had won 17 globes.
“The builders last year measured the space and said they could build the trophy cases to fit between 17 and 19 globes, or build another row that would eventually fit around 23 or 24 globes,” Vonn said. “I told them to definitely add the additional row.”
Vonn now has 19 World Cup globes, tying her with Stenmark for the most won by any ski racer.
Does she think she left enough room in the trophy cases?
“I hope so,” she said. “If I’m overflowing my trophy case, I guess that would be a good problem to have.”
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