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.”