Vail’s Lindsey Vonn summoned greatness, seizing the stage, the world’s attention and turning back the hands of time one last time to win the bronze medal in downhill in the final appearance of her career at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Are, Sweden, on Sunday.
Battered and bruised with both knees aching, Vonn finished her legendary career with elation and one last trip to the podium.
“I laid it all on the line. That’s all I wanted to do today,” Vonn told The Associated Press. “I have to admit I was a little bit nervous, probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life. I wanted to finish strong so badly.”
And among family, friends and fans at the finish, Sweden’s Ingemar Stemark was there to greet her. They are the two winningest ski racers of all time — Stenmark with 86 career World Cup wins and Vonn 82.
“I’m happy that I could finish strong. I’m happy there are so many people here,” Vonn said. “I wish my mom and my brother and my sister could be here, but half the family is here so that’s good. I soaked it all in. I waved to the crowd one last time. Ingemar being in the finish area was literally the best thing that’s ever happened in my life.”
Vonn started third on Sunday and was in familiar territory early — in green numbers on the scoreboard. She took over the lead from Germany’s Viktoria Rebensburg. Vonn stayed on the hot seat for six racers until Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec, the eventual winner, took over.
Ironically, Stuhec was recovering from her own knee injury and ended up defending her World Championship from 2017 in St. Moritz, Switzerland. And Vonn politely crashed one of Stuhec’s television interviews with a hug and congratulations.
Stuhec finished in 1 minute, 1.74 seconds, with Switzerland’s Corinne Suter (23-hundredths of a second back), followed by Vonn (49-hundredths). And while Stuhec won, Sunday was a celebration of Vonn’s career, including a moment with now-Eurosport journalist and former rival Tina Maze.
Vail’s Mikaela Shiffrin tweeted out her congratulations, writing “Big congrats to Lindsey Vonn for a final perfect run.”
By the numbers
Sunday was Vonn’s eighth Worlds medal. She finishes with two gold medals — both in Val d’Isere, France in 2009 in downhill and super-G — three silvers and three bronzes at the biennial event. Along with gold (2010 downhill) and two bronzes at the Olympics, there isn’t much Vonn hasn’t done during her 18-year career.
The 82 World Cup wins are a well-known figure, but she also has 137 podiums on tour and 214 top 10 finishes. Her 43 wins in downhill alone would place her sixth on the women’s all-time World Cup win list ahead of Sweden’s Anja Parson, another of her former rivals. Fun fact — before Vonn, the American women’s record for most downhill wins was nine, held by Picabo Street, one of Lindsey’s idols growing up.
Those 43 downhill wins are a record, regardless of gender, as are her 28 super-G triumphs.
Her four World Cup championship globes are an American record. Her eight downhill season wins are a world record. Her 20 total globes — four overall; eight in downhill; five in super-G and three in combined — are also tops on the planet.
Vonn won 18 times at Lake Louise, Alberta, which in skiing parlance is called Lake Lindsey. Yet Vonn conquered a bunch of other iconic venues on tour:
• Cortina, Italy: 11 World Cup wins.
• Garmisch, Germany: Nine wins.
• Val d’Isere, France: Seven World Cup wins and two worlds titles in 2009.
Accolades poured in after Sunday’s race, according to AP.
“She has a reach that goes beyond just racing and that’s something that everyone involved in skiing should be grateful for,” said Norwegian great Aksel Lund Svindal. (By the way, like Vonn, Svindal retired after a silver medal during Saturday’s downhill.)
Bode Miller: “There are so many different ways to measure the best of all time and she basically checks every category, winning or being very strong in all five disciplines. Her wins speak for themselves, her longevity, her personality, and her everything.”
And from tennis, Billie Jean King: “You are a true champion who never quit. Be well, Lindsey, and know that you have given your fans, and most importantly, the next generation of skiers, the gifts of perseverance, athleticism, bravery, and fighting spirit! Here’s to the next chapter!”
As with any racer, the injuries pile up, and, in some ways, Vonn’s bill came due a little more than six years ago with a horrific crash at the worlds super-G in Schladming, Austria, on Feb. 5, 2013. She did her right ACL, her MCL and fractured her tibial plateau.
She tried coming back for the 2014 Olympics in Russia but reinjured whatever was left of her right knee.
That would have been a career-ender for most, but Vonn ended up winning 23 more times on the World Cup, including five victories last season. Ironically, her last career win came at World Cup finals in Are last March in downhill.
During preseason training, she injured her left knee and was skiing with two knee braces during her latest comeback.
After Sunday’s race, she said to AP that she “pushed through the pain one last time,” and that bronze was “the best I could have done today” because “there’s not another gear.”
Vonn added that she will undergo knee surgery for the seventh time when she returns to the United States.