CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy—What was evident all weekend for Lindsey Vonn became clear to everyone else on Jan. 20.
The American skier’s surgically repaired knees simply don’t let her apply the power she requires to win races anymore.
The pain is too severe; the psychological impact too much to bear; her pride too great.
No wonder that Vonn is considering moving up her retirement.
After failing to finish a World Cup super-G, Vonn said leaving the sport immediately “is a possibility.”
Downhill Run of @lindseyvonn in @cortinaclassic today ⛷ She made the 15th Place! We‘re are proud of you Lindsey! You‘re always the best for us! #TeamLV #lindseyvonn #cortina pic.twitter.com/6GeNU18uUg
— Lindsey Vonn Fans (@lindseyvonnfans) January 18, 2019
“But I’m emotional right now,” Vonn quickly added. “I have to really think clearly about that. It’s not a decision I make lightly or quickly.”
Vonn added to reporters, “I’ll let you guys know.”
She was more decisive when interviewed by Swiss TV, saying “now it’s time to listen to my body and it’s time to say goodbye.”
Vonn was charging and in contention for a podium spot until a slight bobble bounced her slightly off track. Then she clipped a gate and couldn’t apply pressure on her right leg to force her way back onto the racing line, prompting her to miss the next gate.
And with that, Vonn stood up out of her tuck, hung her head and skied diagonally off the course.
“I’ve had four surgeries on my right knee. I’ve got no LCL (lateral collateral ligament) on my left knee. I’ve got two braces on. There’s only so much I can handle and I might have reached my maximum,” Vonn said. “I’m not sure. I’ve got to take a couple days’ time and really think about things.”
Vonn was planning on retiring in December. She returned this weekend from her latest injury—to her left knee—but her best result in three races was ninth in Saturday’s downhill.
Vonn needs five more wins to break the all-time World Cup record of 86 victories held by Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark but that seems like the last thing on her mind now.
“I really don’t know what to think at this point,” she said. “Definitely isn’t the way I had hoped that things would go. I’ve been able to fight through a lot of injuries in my career but I think my injuries might get the best of me at this point.”
While Vonn’s most recent injury was to her left knee—she hyperextended it and sprained a ligament while training in November—her right knee is permanently damaged from previous crashes. She’s racing with braces on both knees and goes through an extensive rehab process each evening to keep competing.
Mikaela Shiffrin, Vonn’s American teammate, won Sunday’s race.
While Shiffrin is gaining on her—54 wins to Vonn’s 82—for now, Vonn remains the winningest female skier of all-time.
“Her mentality was something we had never seen before,” said Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein, who finished second Sunday. “She raised the whole sport to the next level.”
Vonn was met by Olympic downhill champion Sofia Goggia in the finish area. When Goggia presented her with a bouquet of flowers, Vonn broke down into tears.
“I was just overwhelmed with emotions—and it was really special that she came,” said Vonn, who has developed a friendship with her Italian rival in recent seasons. “It really means a lot to me.”
Vonn, who holds the record of 12 wins in Cortina, also broke down into tears at Saturday night’s public bib draw when organizers showed a video of her triumphs on the Olympia delle Tofane course.
Cortina was where Vonn achieved the first podium result of her career back in 2004 and where she broke the all-time women’s World Cup record with victory No. 63 in 2015.
“It’s more emotional than I expected. You know that the end is coming but it doesn’t make it any easier,” Vonn said. “I’ve been racing here in Cortina for 18 years. It’s always been a great place for me. Some amazing memories. I was hoping to make some more amazing memories this weekend—and they were amazing—just not the way I expected.
“I cried. It was so thoughtful of them to do that for me,” Vonn added of the video tribute. “I don’t expect things like that and so to have that for my last race really means a lot to me. It’s more than skiing. I hope to leave an impression that is not just about racing.”
Vonn was in contention for a top-three place until she went out.
“It’s positive but I’m not able to ski the way I want to—the way I know I can,” she said. “I’m just really inhibited with my body. My body is inhibiting me from doing what I want to do.”
Vonn wasn’t the only top skier who failed to finish. More than a third of the 61 starters also DNF’d on a course set by Vonn’s longtime coach Alex Hoedlmoser.
“I told him to set an easy course but I think it was just a little bit different in some places than people expected,” Vonn said. “I knew that that section where I went out would be difficult but I was trying to let my skis go and try to carry speed and I just underestimated it a little bit and went through the panel.”
Shiffrin, who has replaced Vonn as the top U.S. skier and who is on course for a third straight overall World Cup title, earned her first win in Cortina.
“When I was younger she was someone I looked up to like crazy,” Shiffrin said of Vonn. “I was doing book reports on her. I was one of those fans.”
By Andrew Dampf