If you were asked to make a list of Australia’s most successful current athletes, it’s unlikely anyone would include a world champion by the name of Jason Belmonte.
Mention the name ‘Lindsey Vonn’ to most Aussie sports fans and you’ll often get an uncertain first reaction.
“Wasn’t she Tiger Woods’s girlfriend for a while?” seems to be the most common response, closely followed by “Hmm, the name rings a bell”.
For those in the know, Vonn is perhaps best described as the most prolific female alpine skier of all time. Despite a career spanning nearly two decades, the Minnesota native is still the headline act on any given race day. But, unlike Tiger, she actually still wins.
In a skiing career that started at the tender age of 16 back in the year 2000, Vonn has since won 82 World Cup races. That’s just four victories short of the overall record, held by Swedish male skier Ingemar Stenmark.
For those unfamiliar with the FIS World Cup’s week-to-week format, 82 wins is sort of the skiing equivalent of taking out 82 grands prix victories in the career of a Formula One driver. To do it, you need a bit of luck, longevity and plenty of skill. For the record, Michael Schumacher made it to 91, while Lewis Hamilton currently has 73.
While both sports are all about speed, comparisons are obviously difficult. The key to really understanding Vonn’s unique ability is to just watch her race. At the age of 34, normally a bit over the hill (sorry) as far as alpine skiing goes, she still attacks every ski run with what seems like reckless abandon. A desire to ski straight down the fall line has always been her strength.
“I always risk everything all the time,” she told reporters after her final race at the World Championships in Are, Sweden, on Sunday. “That’s the reason why I have been able to win so much, but it’s also the reason why I crash so much and had so many injuries.”
And there really have been some spectacular stacks along the way, it must be said. From tearing an ACL during the World Championships in 2013 in Schladming to crashing out just five days ago in the second last race of her career, Vonn has done it all.
That most recent crash “knocked the wind” out of her, she said, and led to her compatriot and main rival Mikaela Shiffrin picking up gold. But it didn’t stop her going for broke on Sunday in the downhill, her final hurrah and traditionally her best discipline.
“I didn’t want to end up like I did on Tuesday, in the fence,” she told reporters after her final race. “I was weighing in my mind the risk of putting it all out there, crashing and being injured again, as opposed to finishing where I wanted to. It was an internal battle.”
In the end she came third. It wasn’t a gold medal, but it was still another record broken – she became the first woman to earn a medal at six World Championships.
But despite all the records and fame, it’s Vonn’s human side that has made her so likeable over the years on the ski racing circuit. With reporters she is personable, funny and disarmingly candid, occasionally slipping into the concerns of her love life. With fans she has always been generous with her time. And, she is unpredictable too.
After being presented with a token gift of a cow following a World Cup win in Val d’Isere in 2005, she was so attached to it that she arranged to keep it, much to organisers’ surprise, and the cow has led to a herd, which she keeps in Austria, her second home.
It is these little gems that no doubt led to one reporter even suggesting that winter sports might now have a bit of a “Usain Bolt moment” as its biggest name leaves the stage. But, feisty as ever, Vonn was having none of that.
“There are a lot of people that have the potential to continue to grow the sport,” she said, before reeling off the names of half a dozen skiers, men and women. “But it’s not just about success; it’s about doing everything you can to promote it, and that’s a part of your job as an athlete.”
Wise words from a retiring great of the sport, who was one of the very best at self-promotion. Shiffrin, who still remains difficult to warm to, is the most likely champion to take over Vonn’s 82 wins if she can stay fit. The legend herself thinks that Sofia Goggia from Italy could be the next big name of the sport.
Either way, one thing’s for sure: There will never be another Lindsey Vonn.