Before she was the Speed Queen, Lindsey Vonn was The Turtle. That’s what coach Erich Sailer called her when she first tried ski racing at Buck Hill, an apt description for a kid who crept her way down the slope.
That initial impression lasted about as long as a spring snow. By age 12, Vonn — then Lindsey Kildow — was waving goodbye to Minnesota from the back window of the family car, as her parents transplanted the budding star from Apple Valley to the Colorado mountains. There she was able to finish the job she started at Buck Hill: becoming the most successful Alpine ski racer in U.S. history.
Sunday, Vonn will race for the final time, closing out her career in the downhill at the world championships. She will leave the sport with 82 World Cup victories, the most by any woman in history, and the only Olympic downhill gold won by an American woman.
Vonn always remained connected to Minnesota, saying her past made her who she is. Even worldwide fame couldn’t diminish her Midwestern unpretentiousness. She could glam it up at a red-carpet event, but when she was offered a choice between a cash prize and a cow for winning a race in France, Vonn took the cow. Twice.
Attacking every course with full-throttle fearlessness lifted Vonn to four World Cup overall titles, yet it ensured her body would falter before her will to win diminished. A series of spectacular crashes seemed to trap her in an endless loop of recovery and rehabilitation in recent years, eventually grinding her knees to dust. Vonn’s ability to keep fighting her way back, though, came to define her as much as the records and crystal globes.
Vonn has become synonymous with her sport, making it hard to fathom that Sunday will mark her final bow. She’s certain to savor her last plunge down a mountain. Just don’t expect her to do it at a turtle’s pace.