(CNN) — Lindsey Vonn was never going to slip quietly into the sunset.
The most successful female Alpine skier in history, the greatest America has produced, barreled out of the gate and threw herself downhill for one last time and made sure her farewell race was in keeping with her golden career: historic, dramatic and filled with emotion.
The end was not triumphant, but it didn’t have to be. Vonn already had her place in history.
Yet with bronze on the Swedish slopes where she won her first championship medals, the 34-year-old added polish to her concluding chapter as an elite athlete — becoming the oldest woman to secure a medal at a world championships and the first female racer to medal at six world championships.
There was more to put in the record books, too, as she also equaled Christel Cranz and Annemarie Moser-Proll’s record of five women’s downhill world championship medals.
Though there was no world title, it was an impressive denouement from a woman racing with damaged knees. The bronze, she said afterwards, felt like gold. “I skied with all my heart,” she said.
Going out of the gate third, the American had set the early pace. Fans burst into raucous cheers on seeing the former Olympic champion’s name on top of the leaderboard and, reacting to the acclaim and her own time, she bowed to the spectators in the packed grandstand and raised her arms towards the snow-filled clouds.
Waiting at the finish line, Vonn looked on in disbelief, perching forward in her chair and covering her mouth with her hands, as racers tried and failed to surpass her time.
Olympic downhill champion Sofia Goggia could not beat her, but then came defending champion Ilka Stuhec and dreams of gold were ruined.
The Slovenian’s time of 1:01.74 ensured she became the first skier to successfully defend the women’s downhill since Maria Walliser in 1987 and 1989. Switzerland’s Corrinne Suter denied Vonn silver.
Vonn will retire four wins short of equaling Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86 World Cup wins, a statistic which will no doubt irk such a driven individual when she reflects on her remarkable career.
Perhaps, too, she will wonder about those injury-lost years. How many more races and medals would she have won had she not been denied more time on the slopes?
Stenmark was in the Swedish resort of Are to watch the Minnesota-born skier’s final race and, as a nod of recognition to the Swedish great, Vonn wore a white, blue and yellow race suit for the downhill. Her outfit also maybe indicates that the record she had been chasing is never far from her thoughts.
“I knew he was going to be in the finish because I basically begged him to come here,” Vonn said at a crowded news conference.
“It meant so much to me to have him at the finish. He’s an icon and a legend in our sport. He doesn’t really like the spotlight but he deserves to have it. I was so grateful he was there. It’s the perfect ending to my career.”
Competing in such a savage event has come at a cost for Vonn, wrecking her body before she was ready to quit. She wanted to continue until the end of the year, she wanted to break Stenmark’s record, but in announcing her impeding retirement a few weeks ago, the American herself said she was “broken beyond repair.”
The injuries she has sustained throughout the years read like a list doctors have to contend with in emergency rooms: a broken right arm, fractures in the left knee, broken left ankle, torn ligaments, broken bone in right leg, concussion, bruises, cuts. “I remember I had to practice writing the alphabet every day to try to regain the use of my hand,” Vonn once said of the nerve damage in her broken arm.
After the crashes and the falls — even after she was helicoptered off a mountain during training at the 2006 Turin Olympics — she has always recovered and carried on. But now the woman described this week as a “warrior” by her compatriot and former Olympic champion Bode Miller has had to call it a day.
She was filled with anxiety, she admitted, before the downhill, battling with an internal monologue, the crash she suffered in Tuesday’s super-G still playing with her mind: would rolling the dice culminate with her in the fencing once again or could she stay calm and execute her plan? Thankfully for Vonn, it was the latter.
“I wanted more than anything to finish strong,” she said, before insisting she wasn’t disappointed with a bronze.
“I’m in a position where my body isn’t allowing me to ski the way I know I can. Normally, I’d say, yes, I’m disappointed because I know I can win but I don’t know that I can win anymore and that’s why I’m retiring. That’s the best I could’ve done today. There’s not another gear.
“It’s not an easy thing to feel your bones hitting together and pushing through it. I think I skied pretty well. Even before the crash I was sore — my neck is killing me. I knew I was capable of pushing through the pain one last time and I did that.”
Vonn is admired by her peers and fans because she is the most human of champions; transparent, emotional, not afraid to cry. On her last day as an Alpine skier, however, there were no tears.
She embraced her father, Alan, and sister, Karin, near the finish line, lifted one of her dogs in the air as she herself was balancing on the shoulders of others. Her fellow racers signed her bib, Stenmark gave her a bouquet and in below-zero temperatures she negotiated the maze of reporters waiting for her with equanimity, telling them she wasn’t going to miss the bone-chilling cold and how she was looking forward to the evening’s party.
She smiled, she laughed, but admitted: “I want to cry, but I can’t cry anymore.”
Over the last few weeks fellow racers have spoken about the American’s legacy. Her desire to race against men, said Aksel Lund Svindal, chimed with everyone who wanted equality, while Stuhec said Vonn had made it okay for female racers to be feminine and athletic. “She never acts like she is on Olympus, where she could be,” Goggia said of the American last year after winning Olympic gold.
Vonn has been appreciative of the glowing tributes. “That’s the coolest thing that’s happened in the last few weeks, how much support I’ve got from the other athletes and how much respect they’ve shown me. That, to me, means more than any World Cup win,” she said.
Fans in Are also echoed the sentiments of Vonn’s peers. Veteran Alpine skier Anna Maria Dahlstrom, whose home is 600km away in Stockholm, had come to watch Vonn and made a placard which read: “Thank you, Lindsey. Forever a star.”
“She’s superwoman. There’s no-one like her,” said the 43-year-old. “I’ve never made a sign like this before but I just felt in my heart that Lindsey deserves a sign.”
Vonn is not only the most famous skier of her generation, but she appeals to all generations. Eleanor Bodin, 21, holding aloft a “Thank you Lindsey” poster, predicted there’d be an emptiness in the post-Vonn era. After all, she does not remember Alpine racing without her hero hurtling down vertiginous slopes.
“It really feels sad,” said Bodin. “Women’s ski racing has grown because of Lindsey.”
But it would probably more accurate to say Alpine skiing has grown because of Vonn.
She retires having won more World Cup races than any other woman and no female racer has more Olympic medals than Vonn’s two in the hair-raising downhill. Had she not suffered a ghastly knee injury — a torn ACL and MCL with a tibial fracture — when 29 and in her prime before Sochi 2014, Vonn may have won a third in the event.
As a 17-year-old, Lindsey Kildow — five years before the marriage that would change her name to Lindsey Vonn — finished sixth at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The largely unknown teenager’s performance raised eyebrows, and later she told reporters that at school she had written of her plan to “make it to the Olympics and win more ski races than any woman ever has.”
Vonn certainly achieved her childhood ambition, though the journey has not been smooth.
Four years after Salt Lake, when she was expected to win multiple medals, Vonn crashed in Turin and later admitted she had feared her career was over. Unshakable, she still competed, but her best finish was seventh.
Over the next five years, having married Thomas Vonn, a US ski racer who became her coach, Vonn developed into the most dominant skier in the sport, winning four World Cup overall titles and, at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, becoming the first American to win the women’s Olympic downhill.
In 2011 she separated from her husband, missed several races through illness then took a month-long break from the World Cup. More pitfalls followed. A year from the Sochi Olympics, she ruptured her cruciate ligament in her right knee, returning nine months later only to fall at high spend during training and rupturing the same ligament in her right knee.
“A very dark moment in my career,” was how Vonn described the period.
Around this time she started dating Tiger Woods, which elevated the skier into another level of stardom (the pair announced their split in May 2015). Her achievements on the slopes and her celebrity off it has led to commercial success. She has multimillion dollar deals with Under Armour and Red Bull, while she also has a foundation awards financial grants to young people to help pay for “education, sports and enrichment programs.” Life after skiing has already taken shape.
She has said she will set up her own business and last year attended a four-day course at Harvard Business School. Vonn has also spoken of her dreams of acting with ‘The Rock’.
This week she was asked whether she had any plans to start a family and took the question as an opportunity to set up her phone so that her boyfriend, NHL Nashville Predators defenceman P.K. Subban, could listen in on the news conference before saying “Yes, of course I’d love to have children.”
For now, Vonn is looking forward to no longer having to do daily five-hour strength and conditioning workouts in the gym. She will, she says, rest, watch Law and Order, and undergo what will hopefully be a final operation on a ski injury.
“I was scared before of life without skiing and it’s taken me a while to get to this point where I’m happy with it,” she said.
“I’m not nervous about it. I’ve got a lot to look forward to. In the real world I’m actually pretty young. I’ve felt old for a long time because I’m racing with girls who are a lot younger than me, but I’ve a lot to look forward to so I’m excited.”