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The winningest female skier of all time has launched out of each start gate and down every course the same way throughout her career: putting everything—body included—on the line. That fearless approach has earned Lindsey Vonn 82 victories on the World Cup, as well as three Olympic and seven World Championship medals since the Vail resident began racing professionally at age 17.
However, the 34-year-old’s go-big-or-go-home mentality has, of course, led to countless crashes, resulting in a list of injuries that reads like an orthopedic entrance exam. Over the past 14 years, Vonn has not gone a single season without some sort of injury. She suffered multiple knee ligament tears, a broken ankle, a broken arm, torn tendons, multiple concussions, deep bone bruises, and nerve damage. Slamming into solid, icy slopes at speeds exceeding 80 mph has taken its toll.
The crashes and resulting injuries left Vonn’s body permanently damaged and unable to keep up with her dauntless mindset, which is why she announced last week that the 2019 FIS World Alpine Ski Championship downhill race this Sunday in Åre, Sweden, will be the very last of her career. “My body is broken beyond repair and it isn’t letting me have the final season I dreamed of,” Vonn wrote in an emotionally charged Facebook post. “My body is screaming at me to STOP and it’s time for me to listen.”
Her penultimate race, Tuesday’s World Championship super G, ended like so many others: in a violent crash. The 16th racer out of the gate, Vonn was bombing down the top of the track when her skis bobbled and she went straight through a gate panel, smashing into the ground headfirst and spinning into the nets. Her right ski exploded off, which likely prevented a more serious injury. Vonn was slow to get up, but after a lengthy course hold and the medical team bringing her a sled, she instead clicked back into her skis and meandered down the course—yet another testament to her courage and resilience.
Vonn’s 23-year-old teammate Mikaela Shiffrin, who continues to build toward the winningest season of her own career, ended up with the gold medal in Tuesday’s race. Formerly a slalom specialist, Shiffrin has won every SG race she’s entered this season. Watching from the leader’s box, where she notched the top speed coming down the course just before Vonn, Shiffrin turned her head and covered her face upon witnessing Vonn’s grizzly crash. The two embraced as the veteran limped through the finish area. Vonn, a perennial class act, could be heard congratulating Shiffrin on her fantastic race.
“I’m too old to be crashing like that,” Vonn told NBC afterward. “I’ve been knocked down so many times. It’s time to leave the ring for a different arena.”
She will stay in the ring for one more fight. Vonn plans to enter the downhill portion of Friday’s alpine combined race simply as practice for Sunday’s downhill, which will be the final race of her career.
“I think I’ll be fine,” she told TV crews after Tuesday’s race. “I’m going to be really sore, but I think I just wrung my bell a little bit.”
Though she’ll likely be in pain, don’t expect Vonn to hold anything back in Sunday’s race. Before she launches out of the start house, watch for her signature stomp and the opening and closing of her hands around the handle of each pole, all while her gaze is fixed straight ahead, ready to attack.
In the few races she’s competed in this season, she has favored her right leg (she suffered back-to-back ACL tears on it and recently discovered sharp nerve pain in high-impact situations). Watch for possible adjustments on right-footed turns and landing off of jumps. But mostly, watch Vonn relinquish all fear and hesitation as she throws her skis around every gate and over every terrain feature, building speed with every hundredth of a second and teetering on the brink of control. If determination could be embodied by sheer physical force and effort, this is what it would look like.
Tune In: The World Championship women’s downhill race will air live on NBCSN on Sunday, February 10 beginning at 4:25 a.m. MT, and again on NBC at 1 p.m. MT. Live streaming is available on Hulu, FuboTV and Sling TV.