In 1999, I moved to Vail, Colorado, to do some ski bumming. One day, I slid up beside my friend Reid Phillips, who was a coach for the local race program. As we chatted, a lanky young girl blasted through the slalom course, arcing turns and slapping plastic with the skill of a much older racer.
“She rips,” I said to Phillips. “Who is she?”
“That’s Lindsey Kildow,” said Phillips. “And, yeah, she does.”
The three of us got on the lift together and I looked at Kildow, who was 14, and said, “You’re really good.” She shyly sat there, her head lowered as she stared down at her dangling skis, and answered, “Thanks.”
A year later Kildow was named to the U.S. Ski Team. She gained muscle mass and pretty quickly began scoring points on the World Cup circuit. By the time she won the overall World Cup title in 2008, she’d married and was on her way to becoming a household name: Lindsey Vonn.
Vonn became known for her ultra-aggressive, somewhat insane approach to racing. “I’m slightly crazy and I don’t get scared,” she once told me. “I’m willing to risk everything.” That attitude garnered her three Olympic medals, seven World Championship medals, and another three overall titles. But it also caused spectacular crashes that often put her in hospitals, on bed rest, and forced her to miss huge chunks of the racing season.
The next time I sat down with Vonn it was two years ago in her home in Vail, not far from the chairlift where we’d had our first “conversation.” She’d been through a lot. Numerous devastating injuries, one of which prevented her from racing in the 2014 Olympics, a divorce, and a very public breakup from golfer Tiger Woods. That day, she confidently looked me in the eye and told me her plan. At that point, she’d won 76 World Cup races, 11 short of the record held by Swedish racer Ingemar Stenmark. “I want to break that record,” she said. Later, I watched as Vonn grunted and swore through painful-looking exercises, all of which were specifically designed to try to fortify her busted joints and give her a shot at reaching her goals.
But it wasn’t enough. When Vonn, now 34, announced her retirement Friday, she’d won 82 World Cup races, five short of Stenmark’s record. In the end, it was the injuries that prevented her from attaining her goals. “Over the past few years I have had more injuries and surgeries than I care to admit,” she says in a post to Facebook today. “My body is broken beyond repair and it isn't letting me have the final season I dreamed of. My body is screaming at me to STOP and it’s time for me to listen… Honestly, retiring isn’t what upsets me. Retiring without reaching my goal is what will stay with me forever.”
Though that may haunt Vonn, it won’t tarnish her legacy. She leaves the sport with the most World Cup wins by a woman. And she was one of the few ski racers to win in five events on the World Cup: downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom, and combined. She has made more people care about ski racing and part of that is due to her celebrity. It’s fairly safe to say that no ski racer has ever been as famous as Vonn, and her walks down the red carpet at major events like the Oscars, photo spreads in magazines like Sports Illustrated and Vogue, and high–profile relationships, helped bring more fans to an otherwise niche sport. Vonn was also a committed ambassador who often made time to visit with kids—especially young girls—and share her experiences. Many, no doubt, walked away dreaming they’d become the next Lindsey Vonn.
But it was her athletics that drew the most eyeballs. Throughout her career, people tuned in to watch her crush the competition by seconds (eons in ski racing). People also watched to see if they might witness a dramatic Vonn crash, like the one in the super-G at the 2013 World Championships in Schladming, Austria. In that race, Vonn careened off a jump, flew over the handlebars, and tore her ACL and MCL.
Her heroics were also noteworthy. Before the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, she injured her shin and publicly stated that she might not be able to race. She hobbled around for several days, then won the downhill race.
According to Bode Miller, considered the best American male skier to ever live, Vonn’s proven her greatness despite not catching Stenmark. “She has a lot of check marks that put her at the very, very top,” Miller told Reuters in January. “Stenmark lived in a different era, it wasn’t the modern era and he never had to deal with the things Lindsey had to deal with throughout her career.”
Vonn will race twice more before ending her career. On February 5, she’ll ski the super-G at the Alpine World Championships in Are, Sweden. On February 10, she’ll push through the start gate for a final time in the World Championship downhill.
In her Facebook post Friday, she wrote: “I always say, ‘Never give up!’ So to all the kids out there, to my fans who have sent me messages of encouragement to keep going… I need to tell you that I’m not giving up! I’m just starting a new chapter.”
Vonn is likely to pour as much energy into whatever comes next (she’s hinted at an acting career) as she did her ski racing career. “There’s one gear for me and that’s going 100 percent,” she told me when we spoke two years ago. “That will never change.”