Lindsey Vonn felt pretty nervous as she wiggled her hands on her ski poles at the start gate Thursday morning.
“I knew I had to risk everything if I wanted to get the title,” she said. “I risked it all.”
Vonn came through, capturing a record-tying 19th World Cup season title by earning her record-extending 67th World Cup victory, a super-G at the World Cup Finals in Meribel, France.
Why the risk?
Austrian Anna Fenninger grabbed a large lead, .71 of a second, eight minutes before Vonn stepped up to the start gate. Vonn knew she could only win the season super-G title, accumulating results since December, if she finished ahead of Fenninger, the hottest skier on tour over the last month.
Before both of their runs, Vonn was shown on camera among a group of people watching a TV screen as Fenninger prepared to race.
“[Fenninger] definitely put a lot of pressure on me,” Vonn, who also bagged the downhill title Wednesday, said in a finish-area interview. “I knew she was leading when I was at the top. … I just attacked, and I had nothing to lose.”
Of course, Vonn knows that every time she skis, descending 70mph on a right knee twice surgically repaired in the last two years, she has plenty to lose. (Vonn talked more about risk, fear and her future here)
On Thursday, Vonn crossed the finish line after 67 seconds of all-out skiing, saw she had overtaken Fenninger — easily by .49 — raised her arms, screamed, slid to a stop and fell to the snow, smiling in celebration.
“I really like the high-pressure situations,” Vonn said. “Sometimes when it demands strong skiing, then I can bring it out.”
Fenninger, in the leader’s box, clapped politely.
Vonn notched her eighth victory of the season and joined Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark as the only skiers to reach 19 season titles across all disciplines and the overall. She won’t be able to go for No. 20 until next season but is expected to race again in Meribel, in the giant slalom Sunday.
“Things have gone a lot better this year than I ever could have anticipated,” Vonn said. “I wasn’t really sure where I would stack up being gone for almost two years.”
Vonn won her third straight race Thursday, her first winning streak since December 2012, two months before she crashed at the 2013 World Championships, requiring the first of two major knee surgeries that kept her from the Sochi Olympics.
”I haven’t had any problems [with my knee], really, since Beaver Creek [World Championships in February],” Vonn said. “It’s been hard to maintain the strength on my right leg. … I’m still atrophied from the two surgeries.”
She also took the super-G season title for a fifth time, tying a record shared by German Katja Seizinger, Austrian Hermann Maier and Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal.
Vonn also made a World Cup podium for the 113th time, tying Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell‘s women’s record. Stenmark made 155 podiums.
“I solidified to myself and to everyone that I’m back,” Vonn said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
She did so after missing most of the previous season and not returning to skiing training until October.
“It’s been up and down [this season],” said Vonn, who was disappointed to come away from the World Championships near her Vail, Colo., home with one bronze medal. “I just don’t have that much training. … When I have training and I have confidence, then I ski like I did this week, confident and I have power in my skiing. Sometimes I just was a little bit off rhythm and couldn’t quite find my form. So I think next year, when I can actually prepare normally, I will be much more consistent.”
Vonn’s goal next season? Win her fifth World Cup overall title.
That crystal globe trophy will go to either Fenninger or Tina Maze this weekend. Fenninger, trying to become the first woman since Vonn to repeat as overall champion, leads by 32 points with two races to go.
Vonn, while holding the women’s World Cup wins record, is now 19 victories shy of Stenmark’s overall World Cup record of 86 first-place finishes. If she wins eight races each of the next three seasons, as she did this season, she would pass Stenmark during the 2018 Olympic season.
“It just seems … all of his records are just not attainable,” Vonn said. “Mathematically, it’s definitely possible. … I feel like it’s a little bit too far away to start thinking about that right now.”
Earlier Thursday, Canadian Dustin Cook notched his first World Cup victory in the men’s super-G. Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud had already clinched the season title. Two-time Olympic medalist Andrew Weibrecht was the only U.S. finisher in 15th.
The World Cup Finals continue with a team event Friday. Mikaela Shiffrin will try to wrap up her third straight slalom season title Saturday. Vonn is expected to join Shiffrin in the giant slalom field Sunday.