Reflective Lindsey Vonn finishes season on podium, looks ahead

AP
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Lindsey Vonn was reflective after finishing third in her last race of the season, a super-G at the World Cup Finals in Are, Sweden, on Thursday.

Vonn said her best race of the campaign was either Wednesday’s downhill (82nd win of her World Cup career, moving four shy of Ingemar Stenmark‘s record) or her first of five victories this season at a super-G in Val d’Isere, France, on Dec. 16.

That Vonn won five times this season, plus became the oldest female Olympic Alpine medalist with a downhill bronze, was a testament to her proven (time and again) comeback ability.

The 33-year-old crashed and fell in two of her first three speed races in early December at her favorite venue, Lake Louise in Alberta.

“Definitely derailed me quite a bit,” Vonn told media in Are on Thursday. “Definitely the lowest point of the season.”

The following weekend, she needed supporting poles just to walk (gingerly) due to a back injury. Her right knee, the one she blew out in 2013 that kept her out of the Sochi Olympics, also aggravated her more than she let on.

Then the Val d’Isere victory on Dec. 16 — after which Vonn said, “I guess I’m not a washed-up old hag,” after her first win in 11 months — proved a turning point.

“Because I had come off a series of crashes, and my knee wasn’t doing well,” Vonn said Thursday. “To be able to pull through in that situation and come up with a win I think was really important for my confidence. It got me on the right track for the rest of the year.”

Vonn entered the Olympics in February as the downhill favorite, winning the last three World Cups leading into the Games. Vonn said in PyeongChang that her bronze medal felt like a gold. She said it was the highlight of her season, if not her best skiing.

“It’s been a very successful season, all things considered,” Vonn said Wednesday.

What’s next?

“My knee gets a break, and that’s really what matters,” Vonn said. “As you progress through the season, I definitely lose strength because I’m just not able to lift as much as I need to keep the knee supported.”

Next fall, the focus will be on Stenmark’s record. It’s Vonn’s last major goal before retirement. Next season could be her last.

The record pursuit could be impacted by the International Ski Federation (FIS). FIS is expected to rule in May on a Vonn-backed U.S. Ski & Snowboard proposal to allow her to enter a men’s World Cup race (the other remaining goal before she retires).

When the proposal was put forth last year, Vonn preferred that race be at Lake Louise, Alberta, her favorite venue (18 wins in 44 World Cup starts).

If Vonn is granted a spot in a Lake Louise men’s race in November, FIS rules could mean she’s not allowed to enter the women’s races in Lake Louise the following weekend because of her extra runs at the venue giving her an advantage over female skiers.

Missing three women’s races at Lake Louise would significantly impact her pursuit of Stenmark’s record in what could be her last season.

When the proposal was first made in 2012, Vonn said she would back down if FIS didn’t allow her to start in a women’s race in Lake Louise, too, according to The Associated Press.

Then again, Vonn has said she will not retire until she breaks the record, so she could conceivably ski beyond the 2018-19 season. And five wins outside of Lake Louise in 2018-19 is very possible. She earned 22 World Cup wins the last four seasons, an average of five and a half per season, despite numerous injuries. She didn’t win in Lake Louise this past season and still managed five victories despite the knee and back problems.

Vonn’s quest is complicated not only by the FIS proposal and her health but also by rising competition. Italian Sofia Goggia emerged the last two seasons as perhaps the top threat to Vonn since the heyday of her rivalry with German Maria Hoefl-Riesch seven years ago.

Then there’s the expected return of Slovenian Ilka Stuhec, who won six World Cup speed races in 2016-17, plus the 2017 World downhill tile, but missed all of this past season with a torn ACL.

Mikaela Shiffrin‘s maturation in downhill and super-G is not to be discounted, either.

“I’m in a good place, picking up steam, confident and relatively healthy,” Vonn said. “I hope to (break Stenmark’s record) before my knee gives out.”

The World Cup Finals conclude with slaloms and giant slaloms on Saturday and Sunday, headlined by Mikaela Shiffrin. Shiffrin already clinched her second straight World Cup overall title and a fifth slalom season title.

Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA will air live coverage of the second runs of the women’s slalom on Saturday (8:30 a.m. ET) and giant slalom on Sunday (7:30 a.m. ET).

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