BUKPYEONG, South Korea — Her body still functions, and because her mind has never changed, she can still will all that scar tissue down a ski hill at harrowing speeds. But this here is the end for Lindsey Vonn, at least in the Olympics. What it took to slide into the start gate Wednesday morning at Jeongseon Alpine Centre — a helmet on her head, a rod in her right arm, a reconstructed knee, scars she can’t count but no fear in her heart — we may never fully understand.
Vonn is the best female ski racer in history, full stop. At some point, and some point soon, we can discuss whether we can drop “female” from that description, respectfully shove the Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark to the side, and leave her atop the podium, alone.
Vonn won a bronze medal Wednesday in the women’s downhill at the PyeongChang Olympics. For a 33-year-old whose limbs have been splayed on mountains from Colorado to Cortina, that is a singular achievement that must be viewed through the long lens of her career. She is now the oldest woman to win an Olympic medal in Alpine skiing. But man, that little stat feels two-dimensional, something that’s true but doesn’t begin to get at the depth of the story, which is simultaneously familiar and inspiring.
“Really, are you asking me to commentate [on] the greatest skier?” said Wednesday’s gold medalist, Sofia Goggia of Italy.
Yes, Sofia. Yes, we are.
“It speaks for itself,” Goggia said. “She has 140 or 130 [World Cup] podiums. Me, I have 20. She has 81 victories. I have four.”
It is a perspective that every World Cup skier on that insane, globe-trotting circuit carries with her. They are numbers that make up the foundation of Vonn’s career, numbers that seem unattainable to anyone else who entered the starting gate Wednesday. Now, she has more numbers: three Olympic medals, this downhill bronze to go with the gold she won eight years ago in Vancouver, a bronze in the super-G from those same Games when she was, as she said Wednesday, “on top of the world.”
The places she has been since. Wow. Broken bones, divorce, the missed 2014 Olympics with a bad knee. Life. There might be parts of Wednesday’s run that Vonn could examine and criticize, sections of the course where she might have made up the 47-hundredths of a second she finished behind Goggia or the 38-hundredths she finished behind Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel, who took silver, her second medal here. But being there, that counted for something for Vonn, because that was never guaranteed.
“I never am the person that said I can’t do something, or I’ve never thought of quitting because of an injury,” Vonn said. “But it’s taken its toll. And that’s why I can’t keep ski racing, you know?”
She paused a good, long while. Her career is not done, not quite. Indeed, on Thursday she will compete in the Alpine combined, which she may well lead after the downhill leg. But she will have to ski slalom, too, and in that run, she will lose time. Though it’s not out of the question, she is unlikely to medal, and thus she will say goodbye to the Olympics at the bottom of this same hill.
But not doing it? That’s not Vonn. The reason she has ended up on her back and her head and her side, skidding down so many of these slopes around the globe, is because not doing it is not an option.
“I think my injuries made me stronger,” she said. “I do, because I wouldn’t be the same person that I am today. When you’re young, you ski and you win and you don’t appreciate things. I’ve been in the fences so many times. I know so many doctors on a first-name basis that it’s ridiculous. So if you need any medical care, just let me know. I can hook you up.”
So her rehab from this injury or that one, that became her life. It might have been advisable to travel to the grocery store in bubble wrap. “I think she’s got a really good ability to block out pain,” said Chris Knight, her primary coach with the U.S. Ski Team. She has needed it, because even with a body that has been reassembled with duct tape and chewing gum, her brain has only told her, ever, to attack, attack, attack.
“Getting her here, for us,” Knight said, “was half the battle.”
A dozen years ago, in the Italian mountains near the French border, Vonn hurtled herself down a course in a training run for the Olympic downhill at the Turin Games. Her legs split like a fawn trying to stand on a frozen pond. She was airlifted by helicopter off the mountain, and spent the night in the hospital.
Two days later, she raced in the Olympics.
“She does not have a glass jaw,” her father, Alan, told me in a phone interview all those years ago.
Now, she has more armor around not just her jaw, but her body, her mind, her heart. She isn’t 21 anymore. All this stuff hardens you. “In ski-racing age,” she said, “I’m over the hill.” And yet, while Mikaela Shiffrin and her resilient, responsive, 22-year-old body surged ahead to become the next American skiing icon, perhaps an all-time great, Vonn could have bailed. Instead, she went back to work.
“Every single meal she’s eaten for the last two years is to build up to this moment,” said Karin Kildow, one of her younger sisters. “Every single gym workout. … Every single thing she’s done every day for the last eight years has been for this day and those two minutes.”
“It was just a touch tentative in the middle section,” Knight said.
That’s not, though, what Lindsey Vonn will take from these Olympics, not in two years or 20. What she will take is that she was here, that she joined Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso as the only three-time Alpine medalists in U.S. history. Miller and Mancuso are in South Korea, but they’re retired. Vonn, she still raced. After all this time and all those travails, that maybe mattered most.
“I’ve been through the hard times,” Vonn said. “ … That makes me a stronger person. I wouldn’t change it. I would like to have a little less pain. But otherwise, I wouldn’t change it.”