SALT LAKE CITY — When Lindsey Vonn announced her retirement from alpine skiing nearly two weeks ago, she admitted it was not the finale to her storied career that she envisioned.
But the most successful alpine skier in U.S. history and the most decorated woman in the world ignored pain, physical and emotional, to give her best effort to one more race.
In doing so, she gave herself the storybook ending she deserves.
On the same course in Are, Sweden, where she won her first World Championship medal in 2007, Vonn raced to a downhill bronze medal – her eighth World Championship podium.
She finished her run with a smile and a wave to the crowd, and then she took her skis off and walked into the embrace of the only alpine skier in the world to have more World Cup victories than her – Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark. He had 86 victories, while she finishes with the most of any woman and any American at 82.
“I’m literally tapped out, I can’t cry anymore,” Vonn said. “I want to cry but it’s dry. ... It’s not an easy thing to feel your bones hitting together and continue to push through it.”
When asked about the pain she battled before her last race, she didn’t hold back.
“Of course I’m sore. Even before the crash I was sore. So I’m just sore on top of sore. My neck is killing me,” Vonn said, referring to the Super G crash that prompted her social media post explaining that she’d retire after World Championships because her body was too broken and bruised to continue competing in the sport she loves. “But at the end of the day no one cares if my neck hurts; they only care if I win. ... I knew that I was capable of pushing through the pain one last time and I did that. ... Every athlete has their own obstacles and I faced mine head on today and I conquered them.”
There is a lot to admire in Vonn.
Just her accomplishments would be worthy of praise – three Olympic medals, four-time World Cup title winner, 137 World Cup podiums and 433 races. But what’s really most admirable about the 34-year-old skier is her resilience, her courage and the honesty with which she’s approached controversial subjects.
Vonn’s first Olympics was in Salt Lake City as a 17-year-old with high hopes. But she didn’t earn a medal, with her best finish a sixth place in the combined. In 2006, she crashed in a training run for downhill and had to be taken from the mountain in a helicopter. She came back two days later to compete, earning eighth place in the event.
That moment wasn’t the Olympic moment she’d worked for, but it was the moment the world realized just how gritty the Minnesota native was.
She would go on to prove her toughness, mental and physical, repeatedly as she battled back from injuries that would have ended the careers of other athletes.
In 2010, she entered the Vancouver Olympics the overall World Cup champion and heavy favorite to win multiple medals. But she severely bruised her shin in a training run the week before the Olympics, putting her medal hopes in jeopardy again. She earned the gold medal on Feb. 17 in the downhill, admitting she wondered after the injury if an Olympic podium just wasn’t meant to be for her.
Vonn’s career has been a tribute to persistence, to resilience and to being true to who you are, no matter what labels other people want to give you.
When she announced her retirement, she posted that she was “struggling with the reality of what my body is telling me versus what my mind and heart believe I am capable of. The unfortunate reality is my mind and body are not on the same page.”
In the end, another knee injury and subsequent surgery were too much to overcome.
“Despite extensive therapy, training and a knee brace, I am not able to make the turns necessary to compete the way I know I can,” she said. “My body is broken beyond repair, and it isn’t letting me have the final season I dreamed of. My body is screaming at me to STOP, and it’s time for me to listen.”
But as Vonn has done so many times before, she was not content to fade quietly into the history books.
If fate wasn’t going to give her that fairytale ending, she’d engineer it.
She begged Stenmark, 62, who shuns the spotlight, to meet her at the finish of her last race through text messages. And then she gave her best, one more time, to a sport that has been both cruel and kind to her, and the result was a medal.
Afterward, she told NBCSN’s Andrea Joyce that she wanted a medal more than she wanted to admit as she stood in that gate for the final time.
“I laid it all on the line, and that’s all I wanted to do today,” Vonn told Joyce. “I have to admit I was a bit nervous, probably the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life. I wanted to finish strong so badly, and I had a really hard time controlling my nerves.”
Vonn finished with a smile and wave to the crowd, and then she took her skis of and walked into Stenmark’s embrace.
She called his decision to come and be part of her swan song “the best thing that’s ever happened in my life.”
Stenmark said the reason he showed up to present flowers to the podium finishers wasn’t just to witness the end of one of the most successful skiers in the world. It was to witness the kind of resilience that transcends sports.
And it is Vonn’s ability to find her way out of heartbreak and into joy that will make the next chapters of her life something special.
Thank you, Lindsey, for being a constant reminder that giving up is the only real defeat.