MONACO – It’s been an emotional two weeks for U.S. alpine skiing superstar Lindsey Vonn. She just skied the final race of her historic career, a little more than a week ago, taking downhill bronze at the world championships in Are, Sweden.
She cried tears of joy, relief and sadness after the finish line, as the world celebrated her career.
Vonn’s whirlwind life took her to the Laureus World Sports Awards in Monte Carlo on Monday, when she was honored with the Spirit of Sport award. The discretionary award, presented by American skateboarding legend Tony Hawk on behalf of the Laureus Academy, honored her historic success and relentless dedication to being the best in the world.
Once again, Vonn was left in tears, receiving a standing ovation as she accepted the honor.
“My comebacks have always made me a stronger person,” said Vonn, 34. “I am very sad to be leaving my sport, but I am ready for the next part of my life. Thank you all so much for your respect.”
The crowd, clad in black-tie, sparkly evening gowns and sneakers, burst again into heartfelt applause for Vonn. She stood at the podium, eyes wide with shock, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“I am going to miss it,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
After the ceremony, Vonn admitted the past few weeks of deciding to retire, skiing her last race, and now accepting the love of her athletic peers was overwhelming in many ways. She vowed not to cry again, as she wanted her retirement announcement to be end of her tears.
But her emotions, and the praise coming her way, keeps melting her resolve.
She had intended to retire at the end of the season, but the magnitude – and pain – of her mounting knee injuries proved too much.
Vonn said her choice to retire now was as much as about the present, but also a big view to her future. She wants to enjoy recreational skiing with her future family, and she needed to preserve what she has left of her surgically oft-repaired knees.
“It is still really emotional, I am still processing everything that happened,” said Vonn, who wore a white evening gown studded with gleaming crystals. “It’s a hard reality to face, that my body was not able to be doing what I love anymore.
“I am getting used to this retirement thing.”
Vonn, known for her dedication to fitness, said it feels strange to have an open schedule. Her body and mind are calibrated, thanks to years of rigorous training, to hit the gym and the slopes every day. Replicating the anxious thrill – and sheer adrenaline rush from the high risk – of being an aggressive downhiller will be tough to accomplish in Vonn’s new regular life.
“I enjoy the thrill, it’s exciting to me – I am a downhill skier, so I enjoy the risk, I take the risks,” Vonn said. “… Nothing will ever replace ski racing, something I always felt was really special.”
Vonn is looking toward Hollywood as her next challenge, wanting to get into the movie industry. She said actor Dwayne Johnson is serving as her mentor. Vonn said she has tagged along to a few movie sets to observe Johnson at work, and is thankful he has been generous with his time and answering her questions.
Johnson, a former college football player turned pro wrestler turned big-time movie star, connected with Vonn over their shared work ethic. She will be an executive producer on an upcoming film. And Vonn, who is no stranger to modeling and doing TV commercials, said she will be taking acting lessons and may also step in front of the camera.
“I’m looking at the possibilities,” Vonn said. “I know there are a lot of opportunities, but I am not sure what I will be good at. I am passionate about finding something that challenges me. Ski racing challenged me. Maybe acting is that path, maybe not.”
She had been nominated in the Laureus Comeback of the Year category, thanks to her remarkable recovery from serious injuries to return to as one of the best in skiing, but did not win. The Spirit Award is her second Laureus award, as she was named as the 2010 Sportswoman of the Year.
Vonn’s career is etched in the annals of American and global alpine skiing. She is one of only two female skiers in history to win four overall world cup crystal globes, and the first American woman to take Olympic downhill gold (at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010). Her career titles are staggering in total: 82 world cup wins, the second-most for any skier, male or female.
Skiing, at least as a competitor, is now over for Vonn. And she’s growing used to saying that she is retired. What gives her peace, right now, is that she pushed herself to the limit every day. There is nothing left to give.
“I’ve always enjoyed every moment,” Vonn said. “I never wasted an opportunity. I gave my best. Therefore, I have no regrets.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.