On Sunday, Lindsey Vonn captured the women’s downhill in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, the 62nd victory of her career. The run itself was unexceptional, as much as any winning downhill run can be, in part because the women’s course was shortened to accommodate poor visibility and recent snowfall. But it tied Vonn with Annemarie Moser-Pröll for most World Cup wins by a woman, and gave her official status as best female skier in history. Then on Monday, she won a super G in Cortina for win 63, and took the distinction outright.
Vonn had some claim to that status already—Moser-Pröll was active in the 1970s, a less competitive era, though she also retired young—but the record was not a sure thing. Two years ago, Vonn sustained the first of two serious tears to her right ACL. The initial injury hobbled her in the middle of the 2012-2013 ski season, and the second, ten months later, forced her to withdraw from the Sochi Olympics. Sochi would have been the third Games of Vonn’s career, and even more than the wins record, Olympic success has been the major weakness on her resume. (Weakness with Lindsey Vonn being relative: she has a downhill gold and a super G bronze from the 2010 Vancouver Games). The injuries came when Vonn was in her prime—the 2011-2012 season was not only the best of her career, but among the best by any skier, ever—and threatened to keep her away from the very top of ski racing permanently.
Now, here she is again. Vonn’s second knee surgery was successful and her recovery, speeded by her famous dedication to dryland fitness, was short. She opened her season with a win at Lake Louise in Canada, notched a second in Val d’Isre, and has finished no lower than 10th in seven starts. As Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden wrote 10 days ago, Vonn has one of the highest start-to-win ratios in the sport, at just over 18 percent, and when she is healthy there are simply very few women in speed events who can keep up. Talking to the media after Sunday’s race, Vonn told reporters that equaling Moser-Proell had lifted a weight off her shoulders. On his blog, ski racing analyst Greg Needell noted that a lifted weight is bad news for her competitors. “Watch out everyone, Lins is starting to feel good, the record chase is off her back and she can just focus on her craft and race,” he wrote.
When I met Vonn for a for a story in the summer of 2012, she had planned out the remaining years of her career with retirement in sight—likely after the 2015 World Championships, which are near her home mountain in Beaver Creek, Colorado, next month. She will be the favorite in downhill and super G there, and has since decided to keep skiing through 2018. That gives her one more shot at her Olympic goals, and also means she could overtake Ingmar Stenmark’s overall world cup wins record of 86. But a more immediate motivation for her comeback might have been redemption. “Of course, the last two years have been pretty tough and a lot of people counted me out and a lot of people thought I would never reach this record and a lot of people thought that I would never win again,” she told Ski Racing. “I never stopped believing in myself, and I think I proved everyone wrong.” This a familiar mindset: Vonn’s historic 2011-2012 season opened days after she split with her husband and coach, Thomas Vonn, who had long been given credit for guiding her career. She hates being doubted.
Vonn’s return is to our benefit as fans, and it is also good for the sport. She has elevated women’s skiing as a celebrity, but more lastingly in a technical sense by skiing powerfully and focusing on her equipment and fitness to a degree that hadn’t been seen before. With luck, we’ll have that example around for the next three years.