Lindsey Vonn was nine years old in the spring of 1994 when she got in line like all the other kids at a Minnesota ski shop to meet Picabo Street.
But she wasn’t like all the other kids.
“I spotted her right away because she was tall, taller than the other kids,” Street recalled recently about the encounter, which she remembered being at Pierce Skate and Ski in Bloomington.
“She kept a bead on me the whole time. She was focused on me and my every move. Her eyes never turned away.”
Street was on a goodwill tour, having just skied her way into the peak years of her career. A few months before, Street had won the silver medal in the Olympics in Norway, and over the next two seasons she would win eight World Cup downhills, the World Championship downhill, and claim the downhill title two years running.
Like prizefighters, champion athletes can sense each other in a crowd. Street, renowned as a fiercely focused, tough competitor, saw something of that in that nine-year-old girl standing in line in Bloomington.
Few words were exchanged between the two, just enough.
“When Lindsey got to the front of the line I could see she had the intensity that none of the other kids had,” Street said. The way the young Vonn asked questions, the way her eyes stayed trained on the older American champion as she answered them.
“That intensity was there.”
Street recognized an unlikely attribute in the child: a certainty of purpose even at her young age that many people never find. Even then, Street noted, Vonn could see exactly where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do. All the rest — how to move around in everyone else’s world — was less certain, a little confusing and complicated, Street recalled.
“She was like ‘Can I be me, and have fun interacting with people,’ ” Street said, “ ‘and still chase all these dreams I have?’ ”
We all know the answer to that question. Vonn, the athlete, would move on to become a record-breaking ski-racing legend, and Vonn, the person, would grow up to be powerful, smart, stunning, with a canny skill at navigating her world.
In a career that culminated Sunday at the World Championships in Are, Sweden, Vonn set record after record, winning more World Cup races than anyone other than the great Swede Ingemar Stenmark. On a day filled with emotion and drama, her bronze-medal run at the Are downhill made Vonn the oldest woman to medal at a world championship, and the first female racer to medal at six world championships.
Vonn’s farewell races were classic Lindsey Vonn: pedal-to-the-metal power skiing. In the Super-G a few days before she smashed through a gate in full flight, catching the gate panel across her face, before going out in a spectacular crash. Slowly, carefully, she picked herself up and went at it again. On Sunday, she came just a fraction of a second from winning, even though she skied with braces on both her badly injured and painful knees.
“I skied with all my heart,” she said at the finish, a line she might well have used every race of her life.
Many in the sport observed this week that Lindsey Vonn’s departure from ski racing leaves a big hole. But, in fact, what she leaves is the slipstream of a star. We’ll be trailing in it for years: the records, the drama, the power, the improbable congeniality.
“The lack of arrogance from such a superstar is staggering,” British ski champion Chemmy Alcott told the BBC this weekend.
“There are so many different ways to measure the best of all time and she basically checks every category, winning or being very strong in all five disciplines,” retired American ski great Bode Miller told the Associated Press. “Her wins speak for themselves, her longevity, her personality, and her everything.”
“To me, [she is] like the perfect woman,” Italian Olympic gold medalist Sofia Goggia told the BBC. A few years younger than Vonn, the two have become close friends, with Vonn as something of a mentor and inspiration.
“Untouchable and unreachable on the ski slope, a legend, an icon of our sport, the idol that had inspired generations of skiers and that in my darkest moments had always given me the strength to carry on and continue to dream.”
Dominant as she was, Vonn’s career was marred by injuries, injuries that came not from a failing body but from going all out, all the time. As Alcott and others said this week, when Vonn’s name was on the start list “it would genuinely make everyone step up their game. She really did push us all to work and train harder — mainly because she was so far ahead of us.”
Doug Lewis, an alpine skiing Olympian and TV/race-day commentator, who witnessed Vonn’s career firsthand, told Ski Racing Media: “Lindsey for sure brought a focus on power to the sport of women’s skiing that had not been there. She took her working out to a whole new level than anyone else. She used men’s skis. She would try different lines and approaches to courses. To do that though she needed the absence of fear. She respected courses and the danger, but I don’t think she was ever afraid of the courses and speed and danger. That set her apart.”
Nathaniel Vinton, who covered the World Cup for the New York Times and Ski Racing magazine, recognized Vonn’s grit and determination early.
“I remember when she had a huge nasty fall at Lake Louise in late 2002, damaging her hip and some other things. She had to sit out some World Cups, but she came back,” he said. “It was clear then how tough she was about painful crashes, how she didn’t let them get in her head. She was just 17 at the time, and we could already see how rugged she was.”
Over and over she would push herself and sometimes hurt herself, only to drive on to more victories. At the peak of her career she consistently entered all five events, and by early 2012 she had won in all of them. She felt such confidence that she petitioned authorities to race with the men. The request was denied, even as Vonn shrugged and offered that she simply wanted to see where she’d stack up.
“It was her mind that was her biggest strength and why she won so much,” Lewis said. “She had the grit to work harder than anyone, she had the ability to stare down danger and attack more than anyone. She always picked herself back up and committed to learn from the mistake and return better than before.”
But one crash stands above all others. On a Super-G run that seemed destined to be a winner at the 2013 World Championships in Schladming, Austria, Vonn landed awkwardly on a jump and went into a twisting, tumbling fall, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in her right knee, and fracturing her tibia. The injuries would haunt her for the rest of her career.
Away from the racecourse Vonn was equally a dynamo, fully engaged in the business of being Lindsey Vonn, of turning on the world to the fun she was having in her sport. In the process, she took the sport of American ski racing mainstream here and abroad in ways that it’s never been before.
Norwegian champion Aksel Lund Svindal, who retired Saturday after winning the silver in the downhill, remarked that Vonn accomplished something that many in skiing could not: “She has a reach that goes beyond just racing and that’s something that everyone involved in skiing should be grateful for.”
Vonn learned German, cementing a connection to the biggest ski-racing fan base in the world — the Swiss, the Austrians, the northern Italians, the Germans. “To millions of ski racing fans that makes her accessible in ways that no previous American skier had been,” Vinton said.
The European media loved her — they loved her friendships with her toughest competitors, Goggia, Maria Hoefl Riesch, and they especially loved the way she accepted cows and goats instead of prize money and wheels of cheese for her race victories.
The American media loved her, too. In 2008, Vonn and U.S. ski star Bode Miller both won the overall World Cup globes, the first American sweep ever. Suddenly CNN, NBC, and even ESPN, which was never much interested in ski racing, were paying attention. She was featured in the 2016 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and named best female athlete at the ESPY’s two years running (2010 and 2011), the only ski racer ever to win that distinction.
There are so many peak Vonn moments. Many of them were terrifying crashes that left her body in pieces. Some were just pure magic, imperfect skiing overcome by a perfect feel for the fall line and terrain. There was the 2010 Olympic downhill gold in Vancouver, and casting the ashes of her grandfather, a Korean War veteran, along the downhill course after her bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. There was the amazing run of crushingly dominant seasons from 2009 to 2012 where she racked up half of her 82 World Cup wins.
Of Vonn’s 82 victories, Doug Lewis picked out a Super-G in February of 2012, in Bansko, Bulgaria. Vonn’s start number was 17, and she knew that Liechtensteiner champion Tina Weirather was sitting in first in the finish area after smoking the course. Vonn over-skied the top and made mistakes, rotating her upper body and almost going off course. But, she powered through the mistakes and kept the focus forward. She was .6 off halfway down and struggling. Then she changed her style, straightened her line, kept square on her skis and attacked the bottom of the course to win by .05.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Lewis remembered. “That is Lindsey Vonn to me. Not the perfect skier technique-wise — she will rotate and lean in at times — but she attacks and risks and does whatever is needed to win…. As we have seen many times that type of risky all-out skiing can backfire, and it has to the detriment of her body. But no other women skier skied with such power and risk, ever.”
Weirather herself would say later of Vonn, “impossible to beat.”
Sunday in Are was pure Vonn. Powerful skiing, and grace, exuberance, generosity at the finish.
For many in the sport, it’s puzzling to think of ski racing without Lindsey Vonn. She always found a way to bounce back from even the most harrowing falls and brutal injuries. Not anymore. We’re in the post-Lindsey Vonn era now. Eighty-two World Cup wins, eight World Cup season titles in downhill, five in Super-G, four Overall, eight World Championship podium finishes, three in the Olympics.
“Now,” Picabo Street told Ski Racing, “she gets to roll up her sleeves and pay it forward. This next Vonn chapter will be amazing.”
Street and Vonn were staying at the same house for the 2002 winter Olympics at Snowbasin, Utah. Street was by then 30 and it would be her last Olympics. Vonn was 17, and it was her first time at the big show. By then, they’d become friends; Street was a mentor.
“We passed in the hallway,” Street recalls.
Street had raced in the downhill the day before, the last race of her career. She’d finished 16th. Vonn would launch her Olympic run the next day, in the combined.
Street high-fived the teenager. “Go get ‘em kid” she remembers saying.
“Then Lindsey charged into the next day and took off!”