After the craziest year of her life – career-threatening injury, finalization of her divorce, a new relationship with Tiger Woods – can the greatest skier of her generation bounce back to win gold at the Winter Olympics? Lindsey Vonn reveals what it takes to be – and to become again – the best there is.
The day of the first race at the 2013 Alpine World Ski Championships in Austria was a gray Tuesday; above-zero temperatures, rain, mist. It had snowed in the previous days, and the Schladming piste was soft and sticky on this February 5, particularly away from the narrow corridor of the racing line.
The start of the women’s super-G, set for 11am, was repeatedly delayed due to the weather. It was after 3pm and dusk was already settling in when number 19, a favorite for World Cup gold, stepped up. She clocked a four-hundredths of a second lead at the first intermediate time and was 0.12 behind at the next. But her race was over after 44 seconds. Search YouTube for “Vonn crash” (and turn down the volume if you’re not into horror movies).
The medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments of Lindsey Vonn’s visibly dislocated right knee were torn, and her tibial plateau, the part of the shinbone that meets the knee, was fractured. That evening, a rumor went round Schladming suggesting the injury was so bad that the Olympic, World and multiple World Cup champion would never be able to ski competitively again.
Five days later, Vonn underwent surgery in the United States, with the more favorable prognosis that she would be able to continue her career. The comeback countdown started ticking, and the target was already well in focus: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 – the women’s downhill race at the Sochi Olympics.
Lindsey Vonn, how often do you think about the crash in Schladming that almost ended your career?
Not at all anymore.
But you’ve watched it?
Yes, a few times on YouTube. I wanted to know if it looked the way it felt.
It looked exactly the way it felt. My right ski came to a stop in the soft snow, my lower leg twisted to the right, my body fell over my knee, which dislocated.
How did you feel when you watched it?
I was pissed.
Your Red Bull athletic supervisor Robert Trenkwalder says that there are also positive aspects to the kind of injury you had in Schladming. He says that you can grow, and learn from it.
Before, I could always push my way through injury, but I couldn’t this time. For the first time I had an injury which was greater than my will. In the first three weeks that was extremely hard to accept. I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t go get a coffee. I could only sit. There was no pushing – only waiting.
Did you become a more patient person during this time?
I tried. What I learned from that period was to listen to my body. I actually listened to my knee.
You’ve already won everything – gold at the Olympics, at the World Championships, the World Cup – but winning in Sochi would be the greatest success of your career. Would you agree?
Yes, definitely. To win gold after this injury, personally that would be my greatest success. The accident was the lowest point in my career. Gold in Sochi would be the highest.
There’s another issue: the Austrian skier Annemarie Moser-Pröll won 62 World Cup races. You’ve won 59, so if you stay fit you’ll soon have the record for the most women’s World Cup victories in history.
I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but I think I will, yes. For an athlete, records are the only thing that lasts. The only thing that people will remember.
That sounds a bit sad.
Because it is sad. But if I want to ensure that people don’t forget me, I can only stop once I’ve set the bar as high as possible for anyone coming after me.
In a recent TV documentary, you said that in 2012, when speaking publicly about your depression and your divorce, you felt like an adult for the first time – at 28.
Yes, for the first time I was at a point where I was the one determining what happened in my life.
This late maturing had a lot to do with the fact that you always had dominating men around you: first your father, then your husband.
The man currently at your side is a sports icon: the highest-earning athlete in the world, winner of 14 golf majors.
[Laughing.] Nice try. Of course Tiger is a strong character, but he isn’t dominating. He plays a completely different role. I decide what happens in my life. Even Tiger isn’t going to change that.
Does Tiger Woods make Lindsey Vonn a better skier?
A better athlete, I would say, yes. One example: I wouldn’t say I’m unprofessional, but the consistency that Tiger shows in his professionalism – wow. No one has any idea how hard Tiger works. Tiger says he wants to be fitter than all the others, that’s his way. So he pushes himself a lot further than he perhaps needs to, and to see that pushes me in turn.
The other unbelievable thing about Tiger is his mental toughness. There were moments in golf tournaments where I said to myself, “OK, Lindsey, this is the next level of self-confidence, concentration, control. When you make it to this level, it will make you a better skier.”
At the Masters in Augusta, 2013. There was this stroke where Tiger hit the flag. That stroke cost him the tournament; but he stayed calm and he kept on fighting, even when they wanted to disqualify him. That’s not the kind of news you want to wake up to: good morning, they want to disqualify you. The whole thing affected me more than him.
Before the start of a race, competitive skiers go through the course in their minds, and you wave the palms of your hands in front of your body. It looks funny. Are your hands the surface of the piste?
I’ve never thought about it. [Closes her eyes and raises her hands in front of her chest.] No, they’re the skis.
Do you do this virtual run of the course in real time?
Right before the start you don’t, it’s just a refresher. In summer, when we visualize the courses, or in the racing simulator on the balance devices, the times are real.
So you have every downhill course of the season in your head – every bend, every jump – and you can call them up at any time?
That means that here, now, on the 15th floor of a Miami hotel, you could run the course at Cortina, or Beaver Creek, or Sochi, all in real time?
Yes, of course.
When you imagine it, are you always doing your best time?
You don’t do it to a time, but the line is usually perfect. Sometimes when I’m in bed at night, still visualizing courses, I “fall” just before I fall asleep, simply because I’m too tired. Then I usually get a fright and suddenly I’m wide awake. Then I have to go right back to the start again.
The full interview with Lindsey Vonn can be read in the December issue of The Red Bulletin, due out in New Zealand on December 3.
Copyright Text: The Red Bulletin, Stefan Wagner
Copyright Images: The Red Bulletin, Michael Muller
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