Lindsey Vonn transcended her sport in a way only a handful of Olympic athletes could even imagine. She was about more than skiing. She was about more than medals. She was about more than winning.
She was often in the spotlight, appearing in the pages of mainstream and sports magazines, walking the red carpets, mingling with A-list celebrities and dating high-profile sports figures.
The record-setting racer who grew up in Minnesota, then relocated to Colorado, became a household name in mountain towns and big cities — to people who knew a lot about racing and those who only tuned in every four years.
But now, conceding her body is “broken beyond repair,” Vonn is nearing the finish line for the final time. The woman who won more World Cup races than any other female is calling it quits at 34. On Friday, she said she’ll retire after the world championships this month.
“She’s accomplished so many things and has overcome so much adversity in her life, with her injuries, and comebacks, and setbacks and comebacks,” U.S. Ski and Snowboard CEO Tiger Shaw said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “Very few people can focus and train as hard as she does. We’re all in awe of what she’s accomplished in her career.”
Vonn’s original plan was to step away in December, after one final charge down the course in Lake Louise, Alberta — a course she won on so often it’s now named in her honor.
She was forced to move up her retirement due to persistent pain in both knees, which she fully realized after failing to finish a race in Cortina d’Ampezzo , Italy, last month.
Now, she’s down to two races: The women’s super-G on Tuesday in the Swedish resort of Are, and the downhill scheduled for Feb. 10.
That’s it. That’s all her knees have left.
“My body is broken beyond repair and it isn’t letting me have the final season I dreamed of,” Vonn wrote on Instagram . “My body is screaming at me to STOP and it’s time for me to listen.
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It’s been an emotional 2 weeks making the hardest decision of my life, but I have accepted that I cannot continue ski racing. I will compete at the World Championships in Downhill and SG next week in Åre, Sweden and they will be the final races of my career. I have always pushed the limits of ski racing and it has allowed me to have amazing success but also dramatic crashes. I have never wanted the storyline of my career to be about injuries and because of that I decided not to tell anyone that I underwent surgery this past spring. A large portion of cartilage that had delaminated from my bone was removed. My crash in Lake Louise last year was much more painful than I let on, but I continued to race because I wanted to win a medal in the Olympics for my late grandfather. Again, I rehabbed my way back this summer and I felt better than I had in a long time. Then I crashed in Copper this November and injured my left knee, tearing my LCL plus sustaining 3 fractures. Despite extensive therapy, training and a knee brace, I am not able make the turns necessary to compete the way I know I can. 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. Honestly, retiring isn’t what upsets me. Retiring without reaching my goal is what will stay with me forever. However, I can look back at 82 World Cup wins, 20 World Cup titles, 3 Olympic medals, 7 World Championship medals and say that I have accomplished something that no other woman in HISTORY has ever done, and that is something that I will be proud of FOREVER! I always say, “Never give up!” So to all the the kids out there, to my fans who have sent me messages of encouragement to keep going… I need to tell you that I’m not giving up! I’m just starting a new chapter. Don’t lose faith in your dreams, keep fighting for what you love, and if you always give everything you have you’ll be happy no matter what the outcome. Thank you for the amazing years, for always supporting me, and for making my job so fun. Can’t wait to see some of you in the finish in Åre where I will give it my all one last time. Love always, Lindsey
“It’s been an emotional 2 weeks making the hardest decision of my life,” she wrote, “but I have accepted that I cannot continue ski racing.”
Vonn’s impressive resume: three Olympic medals, including downhill gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Four overall World Cup titles. And 82 World Cup wins, leaving her four behind the all-time mark held by Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden.
Her off-the-slopes portfolio includes: Appearing in the pages of everything from Vogue to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, earning sponsorship deals with companies such as Red Bull, meeting actors like Dwayne Johnson and even being an extra on one of her favorite shows, “Law & Order.” The spotlight only increased when she dated golfer Tiger Woods. She’s now seeing Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban .
She’s big on social media, with 1.6 million Instagram followers.
A recent post from Vonn was cryptic in nature and yet all-too-insightful as she quoted the French philosopher Voltaire: “Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.”
Translation: She simply had no more cards to play. Her aching knees and beat-up body finally applied the brakes to her hard-charging ways.
Vonn’s right knee is permanently damaged from previous crashes. She has torn ACLs, suffered fractures near her left knee, broke her ankle, sliced her right thumb and had several concussions — to name a few. She’s limited to about three runs per day, and her body just can’t handle the workload of other skiers.
“Honestly, retiring isn’t what upsets me. Retiring without reaching my goal is what will stay with me forever,” Vonn said. “However, I can look back at 82 World Cup wins, 20 World Cup titles, 3 Olympic medals, 7 World Championship medals and say that I have accomplished something that no other woman in HISTORY has ever done, and that is something that I will be proud of FOREVER!”
Her first World Cup start was Nov. 18, 2000, in a slalom race in Park City, Utah, and she didn’t qualify for the second run. She was Lindsey Kildow then, before changing her name to Vonn after marrying her now ex-husband and ex-coach, Thomas.
Her first World Cup win came four years later, in a downhill event at Lake Louise.
Retiring in Sweden brings Vonn full circle. She won her first two major championship medals — two silvers — at the 2007 worlds in Are.
As for how she will be remembered , that’s simple for U.S. coach Paul Kristofic: Her comebacks.
“That never-give-up attitude is something that everyone can take away from,” Kristofic said. “She has created that character and lived it. Those are life lessons that everybody can take. Give it your all and never give up. That’s a very strong legacy.”