PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – The gloves will be off for Lindsey Vonn at her fourth – and likely final – Olympic Games, but not just yet.
Vonn is wearing gloves in high traffic zones like the media center, where she appeared for a press conference Friday at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
“I don’t know which of you are sick; I’m just being safe,” she told the media, noting that she also wore them on the plane over.
Eight years ago in Vancouver, Vonn wore a mask. “I figured for the press conference, a mask probably wasn’t appropriate,” she said with a laugh. “I’m just trying to stay healthy.”
A healthy Vonn has been a rarity the last few years, but her problems have usually been more along the lines of injuries rather than illness.
After winning the gold medal in downhill and bronze in super-G at the Vancouver Games, nicknamed the “Vonn-couver Games,” she was a heavy favorite for Sochi.
But much to the chagrin of Vonn, her fans and NBC, which had built a promotional campaign around her, she missed the 2014 Olympics after re-injuring her right knee.
“I obviously have been waiting a very long time for these Olympics,” Vonn said. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs since Vancouver, but I feel like I’m coming into these Olympics on a hot streak. I am skiing exceptionally well; I have a lot of confidence.”
After a lackluster start to the season, Vonn came on strong in the lead-up to PyeongChang after resting her knee for a month.
On Sunday, the three-time Olympian won her third straight world cup downhill and capture her 81st world cup win. That’s a women’s record – though at this point she continues to beat her own women’s record – and she is closing in on Swedish racer Ingemar Stenmark’s overall record of 86.
But the world cup hasn’t been her focus this season – the Olympics has.
“It’s what I think about first thing when I wake up and what I think about when I go to sleep,” she said.
Vonn was only 17 in her first Games in 2002 in Salt Lake City. Four years later, she crashed in a downhill training in Torino and was hospitalized overnight, but came back to finish eighth in the race. Then she struck gold in Vancouver.
In PyeongChang, Vonn will compete in downhill, super-G and the combined. She was second in the downhill test event last year and said the downhill course at Jeongseon Alpine Centre suits her.
“It has long sweeping turns, some nice tactical sections,” she said. “We have a turn going into a jump which is actually pretty rare, some nice terrain pieces and generally all the jumps are very big, so I think it’s a great course. It just now depends on weather and snow conditions, but the men said it was awesome.”
While she said she would love to compete in the giant slalom, she said her knee is not up to the task.
“I just don’t think I can contend for a medal, so there’s really no point,” she said.
The men and women will compete on the same course for the first time in Olympic history. Because the men go first, Vonn was able to march in her first Opening Ceremony since 2002.
“Because of the schedule and because it’s my last Olympics, it’s very important to me to attend,” she said, “and I’m going to get as much of the Olympic experience in these next two weeks as possible.”
Vonn said her perspective on the Games hasn’t changed that much since her first Games 16 years ago.
“I’ve always been in awe of the Olympics, especially 2002,” she said. “I was 17, it was right after 9/11. It was such an unbelievable experience to be able to walk into the stadium Opening Ceremony with basically America cheering for you.
“I don’t think that awe and respect has has ever changed. I always feel privileged to be able to compete in the Olympics, just as in 2002, I was soaking in every moment because it was my first time and I couldn’t believe I was there – I worked my whole life for that moment. I’m still in that position right now.”
Vonn’s only regret is that her grandfather, Don Kildow, won’t be able to watch her compete in the country in which he served in the U.S. military. He passed away in November.
“It’s really hard for me not to cry,” she said, tearing up. “I want so badly to do well for him. I miss him so much, he’ been such a big part of my life and I really had hoped that he would be alive to see me, but I know he’s watching and I know that he’s going to help me and I’m going to win for him.”
Vonn said she was fortunate early in her career not to suffer many injuries, but “these last few years have really dinged me up.”
She figures she’s spent a total of three years since 2013 in rehab, and the silver lining is that it enabled her to start her foundation “to empower more girls to follow their dreams and achieve great things.”
And even though Vonn is healthy now, her knee injury still affects everything she does.
“When I warm up in the morning, I need to warm up my knee first for 15 minutes, then I have to bike and have to stretch,” she said.
“In 2010, I was a much healthier athlete, but in 2018, I’m a much stronger athlete, not just physically but mostly mentally. I’ve overcome a lot and I know what I’m capable of. I think I know how to handle myself better than I did previously.”
She also finds comfort in traveling with her dog Lucy, who also accompanied her to the press conference.
“She’s usually in the hotel room whenever I’m racing,” Vonn said. “She enjoys sleeping a majority of the day. I always have her with me. I got her two and a half years ago. It’s extremely lonely on the road, and since got divorced I have lot of free time on my hands at night.”
Vonn said she was questioning whether she was going to bring Lucy with her to PyeongChang because it’s a long trip, “but she’s always with me so I figured I need her for the most important event.”
She said the the pressure is even greater now because this is her last Games and “because I want to end on a high note. I really want to put an exclamation point on my career.”
However, Vonn’s not retiring after the Games.
“I definitely am going to ski another season,” she said. “After this Olympics, I am going to go home, miss the next few world cups and I will meet everyone in Sweden for the finals. I’m in contention for the downhill title.”
Vonn also is still in the hunt to break Stenmark’s record and thinks she can exceed it next season.
“As long as my knee is holding up and I am still able to win, then I will keep skiing,” she said. “It just really depends on my knee. That’s the determining factor in my retirement.”
Vonn also still has hopes of racing against men. Kjetil Jansrud and Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway have been supportive in her quest, and she jokingly calls them her “life coaches.”
“I ask them for advice a lot,” she said. “I train with them oftentimes in the summer in Chile. I ask them about guys and what I should do. I’m of Norwegian descent, so I feel like I’m a pseudo team member. They’ve always been friends. They’ve always been very respectful to me, of course my goal to compete with the men. They’ve supported me in everything that I’ve done and everything I hope to do.
“Hopefully they can find me a guy now,” she said, then paused. “Just kidding.”
Vonn paused again. “But maybe.”
In the meantime, she has medals to win.
Vonn said her increased mental strength really comes into play when she’s in the starting gate.
“When you don’t let the nerves get to you, when you can stay calm, when the pressure is at its peak,” she said. “Those are the moments when you really have to believe in yourself and you have to trust your ability. And I do. I’ve done it before and I know I can do it again.”