AVON, Colo. — A year ago, Lindsey Vonn didn’t know if she would be on a start list at the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in her hometown of Vail-Beaver Creek, Colorado. After reinjuring her right knee in November 2013 and undergoing a second surgery, the 30-year-old ski racer did not know how long it would take her to regain winning form.
“I always believed I would be back,” she said. “I just didn’t know how long it would take me to come back. It’s definitely been a lot quicker rise to the top than I had expected. But obviously I’m very thankful for how things have gone.”
Now on the eve of the 2015 world championships, she is back as a favorite to win a medal in women’s super-G Tuesday and downhill on Friday. Vonn currently leads the women’s overall world cup super-G standings, and she recently broke Annemarie Moser-Proell’s record for the most world cup wins, now with 64.
She is also leading one of the strongest women’s speed teams in the world. In the first downhill training run today, three of the U.S. contingent — Stacey Cook, Vonn and Laurenne Ross — finished in the top seven, with Cook winning the run and Vonn tying for fourth despite standing up on the final pitch and sliding casually across the finish line.
These three women, plus five-time world championship medalist Julia Mancuso, will compete in the super-G.
Both Cook and Ross credit Vonn with the resurgence of the U.S. women’s speed team. They are back to the strength they enjoyed during the 2012-13 season, when each of the six women competing in the speed events (downhill and super-G) stood on the world cup podium at least once.
“Having (Lindsey’s) momentum and having her pace for us has been really helpful having that positive energy,” said Ross, adding, “it’s really crazy to be such a big part of this incredible team right now.”
For Cook, the camaraderie with her teammates off the hill has been just as important as their training and racing together. And she missed having Vonn and Alice McKennis (who shattered her right tibial plateau in March 2013) on the team last season.
“They’re part of us,” Cook said. “We thrive off each other. It’s a good dynamic. It’s a friendship that will last beyond our time on snow.”
Competing in tomorrow’s world championship super-G will bring Vonn full circle. It was in the super-G at the 2013 world championships where she originally injured her right knee.
“It's been a long two years,” she said. “But I don't think about the past at all. I'm really happy to be here, to be healthy, to be skiing well. I'm just enjoying the moment. I'm a lot more relaxed and a lot more happy than I have been. Because of the injuries, I just enjoy everything a lot more. I appreciate everything a lot more.”
She even had time to think back to the 1999 world championships, also hosted by Vail-Beaver Creek. Still a junior racer at the time, she helped to slip the courses clean of snow and ruts.
“I saw all the kids out there (slipping the course today) and remember being in the exact same position,” she said. “So everything has come full circle. I'm back here, hometown, racing the world championships, something most athletes don't get a chance to do. I'm very grateful and looking forward to trying my best tomorrow.”
Also a hometown favorite, Mikaela Shiffrin — who is racing the giant slalom and slalom races next week — said she feels no competition with Vonn over attention at this championship. Although Shiffrin, 19, has already set alpine records of her own (youngest woman in U.S. history to win a world championship and the youngest athlete in history, male or female, to win an Olympic slalom gold medal), she still admires and looks up to Vonn.
“The fact that she has had such a long, strong career and have her come back so strong this season, I have a lot of appreciation for what she’s done,” Shiffrin said. “She was and is one of my favorite ski racers. I’m really crossing my fingers for her these races.”
“I’m crossing my fingers that all of us have a really fair competition, good conditions, a fair competition, then the best racers can really come out on top, and I think Lindsey is the best speed skier in the world,” Shiffrin added. “I’m really excited that she broke the record. I think she deserved it and it was only a matter of time. Honestly for her, the sky is the limit, and it gives me hope. It inspires me, and I ski well when I’m inspired.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.