Lindsey Vonn talks risk, fear and her future in skiing

Lindsey Vonn
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Lindsey Vonn remembered being there for the crash, on March 22, 2001, at Montana’s Big Mountain.

Vonn, then 16 and known as Lindsey Kildow, was embarking on a career that would include three (she hopes four) Olympics, four World Cup overall titles and the record for most World Cup victories by a woman.

At the 2001 U.S. Championships, the most talked-about racer was a man 24 years older than Vonn. Bill Johnson, the 1984 Olympic downhill champion, was trying to make the 2002 Olympic team after 14 years away from ski racing.

Johnson crashed in a training run at Big Mountain that left him with a traumatic brain injury after awakening from a three-week coma.

“I haven’t thought about it in a long time, since you just mentioned it,” Vonn said from St. Moritz, Switzerland, via phone Tuesday. “None of us really knew what was going on. We didn’t know how severe the injury was. None of us saw the crash. But I didn’t really connect it with my life, because he was coming back and quite a bit older than I was. My thought process never drifted into, well, that could be me. More so when I see girls my age crashing.”

Crashes, fear and risk are parts of ski racing. Vonn knew that well before she tore the MCL and ACL in her right knee and suffered a fractured tibial plateau on Feb. 5, 2013 at the World Championships in Schladming, Austria. Her injury history is outlined here.

She persevered through accelerated rehabilitation that spring and summer. Then, she crashed again on Nov. 19, 2013, in training in Copper Mountain, Colo., and eventually needed another surgery on Jan. 14, 2014.

“I had to take things a lot slower [the second time],” Vonn said. “The pain was greater.”

Vonn missed the Sochi Olympics, and a chance to defend her Olympic downhill title, and faced more grueling rehab.

“Lindsey Vonn: The Climb,” a one-hour documentary chronicling her comeback to the top of her sport, debuts on NBC on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET.

Vonn has won four times in eight races this season, culminating in breaking the women’s Alpine skiing World Cup victories record set 35 years ago. Vonn, 30, has won 63 races going into this weekend’s competition in St. Moritz and the World Championships in Vail/Beaver Creek, Colo., in two weeks.

“Breaking the record has much more meaning to me now than it would have two years ago because I’ve been through so much,” said Vonn, who spoke to the woman whose record she broke, Annemarie Moser-Proell, on the phone, in fluent German, from a Red Bull-owned Salzburg Airport hangar on primetime Austrian TV on Monday night, after winning a super-G in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, that afternoon.

Vonn repeated Tuesday that she would have probably retired after the 2015 World Championships had she been able to defend her downhill gold in Sochi.

“Probably 90 percent likely,” Vonn said. “Everything happens for a reason, I’ve always believed that. … We’ll see what it means by the end of my career.”

But now, she will try to become the oldest Olympic women’s Alpine skiing medalist in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, when she will be 33.

Risk will accompany her. Dr. James Andrews, who performed the January 2014 surgery on Vonn, still checks in.

“He calls me his daredevil,” Vonn said.

There are times when the knee swells, gets sore or just plain hurts, when she skis over bumpy terrain or catches an edge on her ski. She has to warm up her knee every morning before she skis, and she still competes with a knee brace.

“I’ll probably always have to do that,” Vonn said.

Vonn said she must now weigh risk when competition conditions are not ideal, such as in Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria, two weeks ago, when races were ultimately canceled due to heavy snow.

“That would never have crossed my mind before these last two surgeries,” Vonn said. “If anything else happens, I’m pretty much done. That’s the risk I’m willing to take.”

What about when she’s at the starting gate, wiggling her hands around her ski pole handles seconds before she starts speeding down a mountain at 70 miles per hour? Does she fear anything then?

“Nothing,” Vonn said. “Once I make the decision to race, there’s no uncertainty. Zero fear or hesitation.”

Two years ago, the biggest storylines about Vonn were her competition with Slovenia’s Tina Maze to be the world’s best skier and whether she would be allowed to race against men.

It’s different now. Maze, who could retire after this season, is the only skier in the world who can win races in all five Alpine disciplines. Vonn may never have that kind of versatility again, but she has proven in just eight comeback races that she’s already the world’s best speed racer (downhill and super-G) again.

“I picked up right where I left off,” Vonn said Tuesday. “Maybe even a little bit better and a little bit stronger than I was before.”

Most, if not all, of Vonn’s peers are awed. That includes six-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller, the greatest U.S. men’s skier in history.

“She’s just physically more dominant than any of the other girls of this era,” Miller said, according to the Denver Post. “The way she skied speed [downhill and super-G], she was able to put the edge in the snow and do things that changed the sport. The records are fine, but I would say she really changed the way women approached this sport. That’s a great legacy to have.”

Vonn, an ardent Roger Federer fan, equated it to Venus and Serena Williams.

“They changed the sport of tennis by the pure power that they brought,” Vonn said. “They just played to the best of their ability. It wasn’t something that they tried to be different. It was just who they were and who they naturally became over time. They got stronger and just started dominating.”

What will dictate how much longer Vonn competes?

She said she will continue past the 2018 Olympic season if she was close to the overall World Cup record of 86 wins held by retired Swede Ingemar Stenmark. But records aren’t the decider.

“If I’m in too much pain, or if my knee breaks down,” Vonn said. “If I’m not enjoying it anymore. If I’m not able to ski fast, in a way that I can push myself, in a way that I can feel happy and proud of myself, then no, that’s when I will pull the plug and stop my career. I think having these last two years gives me a lot more motivation to continue as long as I can.”

Vonn eyes 3 or 4 events at World Championships

Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

Elena Fanchini
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Italian skier Elena Fanchini, whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won a silver medal in downhill at the 2005 World Championships and also won two World Cup races in her career — both in downhill.

She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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