Lindsey Vonn poses for a photo at the Gold Medal Gala on Oct. 25, 2018 in New York.
NEW YORK – One Olympic gold. Three Olympic medals overall. Seventeen seasons on the world cup circuit, standing on the podium 137 times. Three surgeries, two of them major. And one cut thumb – on a celebratory bottle of champagne.
There are innumerous numbers to explain Lindsey Vonn’s inexplicable career, but this coming season the most talked about will be this: Ingemar Stenmark’s 86 world cup victories – the most of all time.
Vonn, who confirmed earlier this month that this coming season will be her final one, is within striking distance of the Swedish racer who skied for much of the 1970s and 80s: She has 82 world cup triumphs.
Is it any surprise that the winningest female skier is ending her career by chasing more history? Not at all.
“I’m going to go out there this season and do my best to win as many races as I can,” a relaxed Vonn told TeamUSA.org Thursday night in New York, where she was in attendance at U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s New York Gold Medal Gala.
“I don’t ignore it by any means,” she continued. “It’s definitely still my focus, [but] I’m not going to lose sleep if I don’t break it. I know that I’ve accomplished a lot in my career and I’m proud of it. I’m proud of myself. I don’t have anything to prove anymore. At the same time, that record is pretty incredible… I have to accept that if I don’t break it, I’ll be fine, but that also makes me that much more confident that I will break it.”
It’s vintage Vonn: Seeing a goal that is seemingly unattainable and then attaining it. Thursday night she listed off career accomplishments that made her the proudest, and a majority of them featured race wins when she was coming back from injury.
“I think I’m most proud of those times when everyone thought I couldn’t do it,” Vonn said on the event’s “white carpet,” where over a dozen media outlets had gathered to speak with her.
Vonn penned a retirement letter for Sports Illustrated this week. In it, she wrote, “My legacy will be more than skiing and there are many chapters left to write.”
But before she gets to that – she says her focus is starting her own business as well as continuing her work with the Lindsey Vonn Foundation – she has one final world cup season, which for her will begin in early December at Lake Louise in Alberta, one of her favorite hills.
While the focus will be on the magic number 86, Vonn said she had to ignore that mark in the decision process that this season would indeed be her final. At one point – including as recently as February in PyeongChang – Vonn considered racing until she broke the record.
That is no longer the case.
“I just basically got to a point where it’s not making a lot of sense for me anymore,” a candid Vonn said. “I’ve had some pretty brutal crashes and injuries where I had to fight my way back, so I think it’s time that I appreciate what I’ve accomplished and take the next step. … I’m ready for that.”
Vonn has averaged around six world cup wins per season, and this year will focus on the downhill and super-G, where she has won a combined 71 world cup titles.
She says she expects plenty of emotions this coming season, recalling what she felt in South Korea earlier this year in what she knew was her final Olympics. She won bronze in the downhill.
“I’m probably going to be pretty emotional,” she said. “I’m trying to soak everything in and enjoy it and appreciate it in my ‘old age’ [laughs]. I’ve learned to savor the moments a lot more.”
Vonn called her Vancouver victory in 2010 in the downhill as the race that changed her career. “It would have to be the highlight,” she said.
The Minnesota native says she’s still trying to understand what she wants her legacy to be but will be focused on giving back to the skiing and Olympic communities – and beyond, she hopes – post-career.
“I want to have a positive impact on the world with my foundation and hopefully in this next chapter I can do that,” she added.\Clad in a sheen burnt-orange dress, Vonn spent upwards of 30 minutes speaking to the press, answering question after question about her impending swan song season, Stenmark’s record mark and her to-be-determined legacy.
Other athletes spoke in glowing terms of Vonn, who is considered as one of the greatest skiers of all time.
“She’s an absolute legend,” said Jessie Diggins, the cross-country skier who won Team USA’s first-ever gold in the sport earlier this year with Kikkan Randall. “She’s such an icon in the sport and I think it’s really cool how she’s grown the sport and given the next generation a lot of opportunities, which is really awesome. I’m cheering her on and wishing her the best. It’s a huge thing that she’s accomplished, and she has one more awesome year ahead of her.”
But with the record in view and the emotions in check, how will Vonn approach this last year? Not many athletes get the foresight of knowing an entire season ahead of time, “OK, this is my last.”
“I’ve spoken to… mostly friends, family and to my dad in particular [about walking away],” said Vonn. “My dad did say ‘swan song’ and my dad’s not always right, but I think it’s nice that is going to be my last season. I know that there’s an end point. I can appreciate that. I don’t have to wonder what happens next – I know what happens next. I’m going to appreciate it as much as I can and soak it all in.”