Souhan: Peak performances, despite injuries, transformed Vonn into skiing star

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 7, 2014 - 11:55 PM

Lindsey Vonn is one of the great Minnesota athletes, and one of the greatest skiers, in history.

Her latest injury will keep her out of the 2014 Olympics, meaning she can be identified merely as Tiger Woods’ girlfriend.

We should know better, whether because of proximity or Wikipedia.

Vonn grew up in Burnsville, and trained with legendary instructor Erich Sailer at Buck Hill.

She became an international superstar while her mother, Lindy (Krohn) Lund, followed her races at odd hours on her laptop at her home in Apple Valley.

Vonn thrived despite physical distance from her mother, a rift with her father, a divorce from the skier Thomas Vonn and a celebrity relationship with a scandalized golfer she once mocked.

She thrived despite a succession of injuries and crashes that limited her exposure if not her résumé.

Skiing is a method of controlled falling, of steered slipping. Vonn pushed herself to the brink of safety often enough to become great, and vulnerable.

She injured her right knee 11 months ago at the world championships, underwent reconstructive surgery, then aggravated the injury while training in November. A post on Vonn’s official Facebook page reads, “I am devastated to announce that I will not be able to compete in Sochi.”

Vonn is as accustomed to perception-altering injuries as she is to windchill.

In 2006, she was airlifted off the slopes of the Alps after an accident during a training run at the Turin Olympics.

In 2010, in Vancouver, she became one of the most photographed faces of the U.S. Olympic team, then revealed shortly before competition began that she had severely bruised her shin. She proceeded to win her only Olympic gold medal, in the downhill, but crashed after taking the lead in the super-combined, crashed and broke a finger in the giant slalom and straddled a gate in the slalom.

Assuming Vonn won’t be competing for a spot on the 2018 Olympic team at the age of 33, she will have been fully healthy for only one Olympics — in 2002 at Salt Lake City, when she was a promising teen.

She will have won one Olympic gold, a stunning feat for a kid who started at Buck Hill, but a disappointment for an athlete of Vonn’s accomplishments.

She is the only American woman ever to win an Olympic gold in the downhill.

She is one of two women ever to win four overall World Cup championships.

She has won six consecutive World Cup season championships in the downhill, four in a row in the super-G, and three consecutive in the combined.

She is one of six women to have won World Cup races in all five disciplines. She won 59 World Cup races, third most in history.

She is, by any measure other than Olympic golds, the most successful American skier in history.

But she competes in a sport that, for most Americans, is measured only in Olympic golds and NBC featurettes.

Context is everything. Injuries prevented Vonn from capitalizing on her greatness, but they shouldn’t obscure her greatness.

Vonn began on the bunny slopes at Buck Hill. Sailer told me before the 2006 Olympics that Vonn initially reminded him of “a turtle,” she was so slow. Vonn reminisced about the “hot chocolate, sprinkled donuts. And Erich.”

After an unofficial graduation from Buck Hill, Vonn moved to Colorado to train, took on the world and often won. She became a star in Europe, a pinup in America, and the primary topic of conversation in the Augusta National gallery when she followed Woods around at the 2013 Masters.

She’s her sport’s Peyton Manning. You have to be historically good to win it all and be asked why you didn’t win it all more often.

In Olympic skiing, timing and health are as important as accomplishment. Vonn was ready for her Olympic close-up only once, but she built a scrapbook that described every great slope from Aspen to the Alps.

She’s probably devastated, but Vonn did pretty well for a little turtle from Buck Hill.

 

Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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  • FILE - In this Dec. 8, 2013 file photo, Lindsey Vonn races during the women's World Cup super-G skiing event at Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Vonn is going to skip the Sochi Olympics because of a right knee injury. Her personal publicist, Lewis Kay, says in a statement Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, that Vonn "will have surgery shortly." The 29-year-old American won two medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, including a gold in the downhill. She is also a four-time overall World Cup champion and the biggest name in Alpine skiing. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)

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