From the time Lindsey Vonn was a little girl, flying down the slopes at Buck Hill, Erich Sailer could see how determined she was to be the fastest kid on the Burnsville snow. It wasn’t until a trip to the mountains, though, that her coach recognized how much pain she was willing to endure to get there.
Known then as Lindsey Kildow, the fledgling ski racer forgot to put in her mouthguard and snapped off a front tooth when she struck a gate during a slalom run. “It didn’t even bother her,’’ said Sailer, the longtime coach of the Buck Hill Ski Racing team. “I was crying, but she wasn’t. That’s how tough she is.’’
The Burnsville native persevered through multiple knee surgeries, concussions, nerve damage in her arm and several broken bones to become the most successful American woman in Alpine skiing history. Friday, Vonn, 34, announced that her bottomless grit could no longer prevail over her damaged limbs. She will retire after the Alpine world ski championships in Are, Sweden, where she will race in the super-G on Tuesday and the downhill on Feb. 10.
In an Instagram post Friday, Vonn said her body was “broken beyond repair.’’ Though her original plan was to race through next December’s World Cup stop in Lake Louise, Alberta — nicknamed “Lake Lindsey’’ for her dominance there — she can no longer reach top speeds on her ruined knees, a hard realization she has come to accept.
“It’s been an emotional two weeks, making the hardest decision of my life,’’ Vonn wrote on Instagram. “My body is screaming at me to STOP, and it’s time for me to listen.’’
Her announcement was not entirely a surprise. Vonn has raced only three times this season, and after failing to finish a super-G last month in Italy, she said she was considering retirement.
Still, this is a woman who was airlifted off a mountain following a spectacular training crash at the 2006 Olympics — and climbed out of a hospital bed to compete in four events. Her many serious injuries could not stop Vonn from becoming the most decorated woman in Alpine racing history, with 82 World Cup victories, three Olympic medals, seven world championship medals and 20 World Cup season titles.
She hoped to hold her body together long enough to break Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86 World Cup victories, most by any man or woman. Though she wasn’t able to muster one more comeback, Sailer said Vonn will be remembered as much for her iron will as for her talent.
“Nothing was ever too much for her,’’ said Sailer, 93, who still coaches at Buck Hill. “She never complained. She was extra-ambitious; she always wanted to be first, to be the fastest, and she was willing to do whatever it took.
“I thought she would push through again. At least she’s going out in a big race. And if the conditions are good and she has some luck, I think she has a 50-50 chance of winning [at the world championships]. She is still very good.’’
Though her family moved from Apple Valley to Vail when she was 12, Vonn still identifies herself as a member of the Buck Hill Ski Team. Even after she became one of the most famous athletes in the world, she still cherished the memories of those nights skiing under the lights next to I-35: the tow rope that chewed up her gloves, the hot chocolate in the chalet, the gentle encouragement of Sailer during thousands of slalom runs.
The lessons learned at Buck Hill propelled Vonn to four Olympic Games and a long list of precedent-setting achievements. She is the only American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in downhill, at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Her 82 victories on the World Cup circuit smashed the previous women’s record of 62, and her four World Cup overall titles are the second-most ever by a woman.
“Lindsey Vonn will be celebrated as not only the greatest U.S. female skier of all time but as an athlete who has inspired people around the world,’’ said Tiger Shaw, president and CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, in a statement. “Thank you, Lindsey. You have consistently raised the bar. You have created a legacy that will live forever.’’
In Friday’s Instagram post, Vonn revealed she had another knee surgery last spring to remove a large portion of cartilage. She said she is not giving up, but simply starting a new chapter.
The first one, Sailer said, will never be forgotten in Minnesota. Beyond the gold medals and crystal globes, Vonn’s peerless career left a lasting mark on her home state: proof that a world-class skier could start out on a small Midwestern hill.
“When I travel, thousands of people have talked to me about Lindsey, and they know where she came from,’’ Sailer said. “She was good for America. She was good for us in the flatlands. I tell young skiers all the time, ‘Lindsey did it. And you can do it, too.’ ’’