PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Lindsey Vonn arrived at her pre-Olympic news conference wearing gloves, which seemed a little odd since she was inside a warm auditorium, but then again, Vonn isn’t willing to leave anything to chance.
“Don’t want to get sick,” she explained. “Just being safe. I wore them on the plane over here as well. Just trying to stay healthy.”
Can you blame her, given all the injuries and setbacks that have disrupted her career the past few years? She probably wanted to seal herself in bubble wrap and then be quarantined as she prepared for her final Olympic Games in a remarkable skiing career.
Finally healthy again, Vonn arrived in South Korea determined to return to the top of the podium after a devastating knee injury forced her to miss the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
She’s 33 and still a megastar, but her career has reached its twilight. She’s trying to become the oldest woman to win an Olympic Alpine medal. Her first race of these Olympics comes Friday night (Central time) in super-G slalom.
“Obviously I’ve been waiting a very long time for these Olympics,” she said. “Had a lot of ups and downs since Vancouver [in 2010]. But I feel like I’m coming into these Olympics on a hot streak. I’m skiing exceptionally well. I have a lot of confidence.”
As 22-year-old American phenom Mikaela Shiffrin collects gold medals and threatens to turn these Olympics into the Shiffrin Games, Vonn is hoping to make her own splash.
She owns two medals for her career, a gold medal in downhill and bronze in the super-G in Vancouver. Eight years later, she plans to compete in three events: super-G, downhill and the combined.
Vonn decided not to race in the giant slalom because her right knee “is not in a place to do that.”
Vonn estimated that she has spent three years combined rehabbing from her assortment of injuries, but mostly involving her right knee.
She suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in that knee and also broke her shinbone during a crash at the 2013 World Championships. Upon her return, she reinjured her ACL in the same knee during a training run, which knocked her out of the Sochi Olympics.
She also fractured her left ankle while training in 2015, broke a bone in her right arm in 2016 and had her ’16 season end prematurely because of fractures in her upper shinbone.
Vonn loves to ski at ridiculous speeds, particularly in the downhill “because you go the fastest.” But her body has paid a price.
“With all of my injuries, even though I’m healthy now, it still affects everything I do,” she said. “When I warm up in the morning, I need to warm up my knee first for 15 minutes. I have to do all these extra steps I didn’t have to do before. In 2010, I was a much healthier athlete. But in 2018, I am a much stronger athlete. Not just physically but mostly mentally. I’ve overcome a lot.”
The girl who grew up skiing on Burnsville’s Buck Hill intends to treat these Olympics as she did as a 17-year-old at her first Games back in 2002 in Salt Lake City and “soak in every moment.”
She brought her dog, Lucy, with her to South Korea to keep her company. Lucy even attended her news conference. Vonn also engaged in some Twitter fun about her love life.
“So apparently it’s Valentine’s Day,” she wrote. “I forgot all about it because I’m at the Olympics and I’m single. Anyone else out there single and want to be my valentine? #worthashot.”
You can imagine how many replies that one generated.
Vonn revealed a different side of herself during her opening news conference last week when asked about her grandfather Don Kildow, who died last November at age 88.
She paused to compose herself, then cried as she talked about his influence on her.
“I just want so badly to do well for him,” she said. “I miss him so much. He’s been such a big part of my life, and I really hoped that he would be alive to see me. But I’m going to win for him.”
Vonn enters as a favorite in the downhill now that she’s healthy and in top form. She won three World Cup downhill races in Olympic tuneup events.
The pressure to win in her final Olympics will feel heavy, but Vonn said she knows how to deal with expectations and nerves at this stage of her career.
“Stay calm when the pressure is at its peak,” she said. “In those moments, you really have to believe in yourself and trust your ability. And I do. I’ve done it before and I know I can do it again.”
She won’t be retiring after the Olympics. She plans to compete in World Cup events with a goal of breaking the record of 86 victories held by Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark. Vonn currently has 81 World Cup wins.
“As long as my knee is holding up and I’m able to win,” she said, “then I will keep skiing.”
Not on this stage, the Olympics. She plans to say farewell after this one. Leaving with another medal would be her dream ending.
“It’s harder in some ways because this is my last Olympics and I want to end on a high note,” she said. “I really want to put an exclamation point on my career. I’m just going to lay it all out there.”