The ski season ended on March 22, but Afton Alps was still dressed for winter when a favorite daughter arrived for a visit Wednesday. On an 82-degree day, a coat of well-packed snow stubbornly clung to the hill, while a cozy fire awaited Lindsey Vonn in the chalet.
Vonn had come to her home state to rekindle memories of last winter, meeting with the girls who had participated in a ski camp she designed. Like the Afton resort, she wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the snowy season, either. After two years scarred by a pair of major knee surgeries and long recoveries, Vonn climbed back to the top of the World Cup mountain, winning season titles in downhill and super-G and breaking the record for most career victories by a woman.
She was able to relax Wednesday, posing for photos and signing autographs for the gaggle of giddy girls who completed Afton Alps’ “Ski Girls Rock’’ program. But she won’t stay idle for long. With her right knee healed and her confidence restored, Vonn, 30, intends to keep speeding down mountains until the 2018 Olympics, and perhaps beyond.
“It was a very meaningful season,’’ said Vonn, whose 19 World Cup season titles are tied for the most ever by a man or woman. “Winning the two globes in downhill and super-G, those were probably the most meaningful globes of my career, because I’d been gone for so long and been through so much.
“A lot of people doubted me and thought I would never win again. I just proved to myself, and to everyone, that I’m still here. And I’m not going anywhere.’’
Few thought Vonn would reclaim her place atop the World Cup podium after her protracted recovery from her injuries. This season she won eight World Cup races, pushing her career mark to 67 and breaking the record of 62 set by Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Proll in 1980. She skied at the world championships in her adopted hometown of Vail, Colo., earning a bronze in super-G — her sixth world championships medal, more than any American in history.
Vonn tore two knee ligaments and broke a bone in her leg in a horrific crash at the 2013 world championships. After grinding through an accelerated rehabilitation schedule, she returned to racing 10 months later. But the repaired ligament soon gave way, forcing her to miss the 2014 Olympics and undergo another long, painful recovery.
Vonn said Wednesday that she had to approach her second rehabilitation stint with much more patience, a trait she admits is not her strong suit. With stars such as Austria’s Anna Fenninger and Slovenia’s Tina Maze ruling the mountain in her absence, many assumed Vonn’s time had passed. She did not, if only because she couldn’t bear to give up the sport.
Last December, after nearly a year away from competition, Vonn returned again. She said she didn’t know what to expect or how long it might take her to regain her form. But she won her second race of the season, a downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta, which gave her the confidence she needed to break Moser-Proll’s record in January and tie Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 19 World Cup season titles.
“I wondered if I was going to be able to win again,’’ Vonn said. “But I never questioned my will and determination to fight my way back. And what was driving me was not necessarily the competition, or any of the records, or the wins. It was just merely being back on the mountain.
“I love skiing. It’s not just about the competition, it’s about being on the mountain and being free. That’s what kept me going, just wanting to ski again.’’
And that, Vonn said, is what will keep her going. She wants to race at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which would be her fourth Winter Games. She hopes to pursue a fifth World Cup overall title next season and add to her world championships medal count at the 2017 worlds in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
She also wants to do more events like the one she attended Wednesday at Afton Alps. Dozens of girls and their families began arriving an hour before Vonn led the youngsters through a dry-land training session, as delighted parents captured the moment in videos and photos. Vonn also has created the Lindsey Vonn Foundation, which plans to begin offering life-skills camps for girls this summer.
“There is a lot to look forward to, and a lot I want to achieve,’’ she said. “I’m just going to keep on trying my best.’’