When Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn started dating, one of them was considered the greatest ever, someone whose power had transformed the competitive landscape of a sport.
That’s still the case.
When seeking to compare herself to other athletes Tuesday, Vonn could have chosen someone within her own discipline. She could have chosen someone from her boyfriend’s sport. She could have chosen any great athlete in history. She chose tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams.
In the wake of winning two races to break the record for World Cup victories by a woman, Vonn linked herself to two powerhouse athletes who were once considered outsiders, like Vonn herself.
Vonn, the Olympic gold medalist from Burnsville, reached 63 World Cup ski race victories on Monday by winning the super-G in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, breaking Annemarie Moser-Proell’s 35-year-old record. Following two years of injuries and rehabilitation, she reasserted her dominance in a sport she learned on the modest slopes of Buck Hill in Burnsville.
“You can look at Serena and Venus,” Vonn said on a conference call Tuesday. “They changed the sport of tennis by the sheer power they brought to the sport. They just played to the best of their ability. It was just who they were and who they became over time.
“That’s similar to what I’m doing, is just continuously getting better. It’s not that I tried to bring more power to the sport or tried to change skiing. I just tried to do the best I could and it naturally happened.”
The Williams sisters did not grow up learning tennis from an expensive instructor at a country club. They learned the game from their parents.
Vonn learned to ski at Buck Hill, which to date has not become a destination for winter vacations.
“Even long before I started winning World Cups, people didn’t think I was going to do anything in skiing,” she said. “A lot of coaches told me that. The expectations were incredibly low, that others set for me. I never bought into that. I always thought that I could achieve more than anybody thought I could.”
All great athletes possess some inherent advantage. The greatest athletes emphasize that advantage. Vonn is a tall, powerful athlete. To stand next to her is to wish you spent more time in the gym.
She emphasized her strength by undertaking rigorous weight workouts and advanced plyometrics, making herself not only fast but fearsome on the slopes.
“I think it’s just been an evolution of my technique and my body, and getting stronger and more athletic every season,” she said. “My goal every year when I start my preparation is to see how much better I can get — how much better and faster, whether it’s lifting more in the gym or doing more plyos to be more explosive or trying different equipment.”
Vonn recalled being a young girl in Minnesota and, when asked what she wanted to be, reflexively saying, “The greatest skier of all time.”
“It’s like one of those things as a kid, like being an astronaut or a firefighter,” she said. “One of those lofty goals that you blurt out. It’s incredible to me that I’ve actually achieved something that I wanted when I was a little girl.
“I’m very thankful for everything, all the ups and all the downs. That’s what put me at the place I am today.”
Vonn is 30. She has achieved two of her foremost career goals — winning Olympic gold and setting the World Cup record.
There are two goals she could pursue in the next three years: breaking Ingemar Stenmark’s World Cup record of 86 victories and becoming the oldest woman to win an Olympic medal, at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“I just want another opportunity,” she said. “If I can win another medal, that would be amazing.”
From Buck Hill to the World Cup record? Yes, “amazing” is a good word for that.