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Lindsey Vonn, always brave but now broken, wills her body to one last run to the podium

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/10/2019 Barry Svrluga

‘It’s always been all or nothing for me,’ Lindsey Vonn said this week in a phone conversation from Sweden. ‘That’s how I operate as a person, as an athlete, as a competitor.’ © Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images ‘It’s always been all or nothing for me,’ Lindsey Vonn said this week in a phone conversation from Sweden. ‘That’s how I operate as a person, as an athlete, as a competitor.’ Lindsey Vonn doesn’t want to be done, but she is. A sane person would have quit ski racing years ago. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. Even now, at the end, there is resignation in her voice. This isn’t the beautiful, on-her-own-terms exit of which she dreamed. This one comes with a black eye and a busted rib, appropriately.

“I’m not retiring because I don’t love ski racing,” she said. “I’m retiring because my body is broken.”

And yet Sunday at the world ski championships in Are, Sweden, that broken body hurled down the hill one final time in her signature event, the downhill. She did this by choice, even though it hurt, my god it had to hurt. And goodness gracious, if she didn’t take bronze, the eighth world championship medal of her career.

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In a way, though, that part — the finish, the medal — isn’t important. What’s important in remembering Vonn is that, broken body or not, she did it when most others certainly would not have even tried. More than that, she finished in the only mode she knows — all-out attack, consequences be damned.

Now that her career is over — Vonn said Sunday would be her final race — it’s worth appreciating how difficult that has been over the entirety of her career. There are golfers who, once they fill their memory with the scars from missed putts, are scared to pull the putter back. That’s scary? For years, Vonn stood at the top of a cliff, her brain stuffed with the memories of calamitous and violent crashes that broke her body, and pointed her skis straight to the bottom.

It’s unfathomable, really. Maybe someday, Vonn and fear will be introduced. Who knows how they’d get along? Through 395 World Cup starts, 25 more at the World Championships and 14 at the Olympics, Vonn hasn’t so much looked fear in the face as refused to acknowledge it exists.

On Tuesday, she threw herself down the Are slope in the Super G, Alpine skiing’s second-fastest discipline, behind downhill. Her body should not be doing this anymore. Her mind knows only one way to do it.

“It’s always been all or nothing for me,” she said this week in a phone conversation from Sweden. “That’s how I operate as a person, as an athlete, as a competitor. I’m going to ski my last run at 100 percent. I’m not the kind of person who’s going to ski down in a dress. That’s not my style.”

This isn’t ceremony or coronation. It’s competition, thank you very much.

And so in the Super G, she went airborne over a rolling hill, crashed through one of the panels around which the athletes turn, and was thrown at harrowing speed — don’t say “breakneck,” please, because that’s one of the areas on her body that has somehow remained intact — into a safety fence at the side of the course. At the bottom of the course, Italy’s Sofia Goggia and Mikaela Shiffrin of the United States, the two racers with the fastest times, watched on a giant television screen — then turned away in horror.

Vonn had a black eye. She dislocated a rib. One of her skis was broken. She consulted with the safety personnel who arrived on the scene, complete with a sled on which a normal human would have happily accepted a ride. Lindsey Vonn is not a normal human, so she skied down.

“I refuse to go down in a toboggan unless I absolutely wasn’t physically able to ski down,” she said.

There’s a fine line between courageous and crazy. Vonn has essentially straddled it her whole career. Her approach to that final downhill: “I hope I can will my body down the mountain one more time.”

That’s all it is at this point: Will. Last year, at the PyeongChang Olympics, she was asked about retiring as it related to her pursuit of the record for World Cup victories, held by Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark. Vonn had 82 wins, by far the most for a woman. Stenmark had 86.

“I’m going to continue skiing until I get to 86,” she said in PyeongChang. It was both matter-of-fact and defiant. But how could you doubt her? Her will to do it filled the room.

Now, there’s the realization that she can’t. Sports can be cruel, right? Vonn has not one thing to be ashamed of athletically. She is on the Mount Rushmore of ski racers, and arguably the best of all-time because — though she thrived on speed — she won World Cup races across five different disciplines, while Stenmark’s victories came only in slalom and giant slalom. It’s hard to imagine — in a year, in a decade, in a century — her legend being something other than secure.

Vonn reacts in the finish area after her final run Sunday in Are, Swede. © Francois Xavier Marit/AFP/Getty Images Vonn reacts in the finish area after her final run Sunday in Are, Swede.

But the most romantic notions had her going out precisely as she envisioned: Race this final season, pick up five more wins, pass Stenmark, and smile for the cameras.

In November, though, she crashed in training at Copper Mountain in Colorado. The resulting knee injury didn’t require surgery. It did wreck her season. She didn’t race until January. And when she did, she did so uncomfortably. She took time off. She got back on the mountain. There was no difference. Her body was pleading with her: Stop. Please, please stop.

“It was a difficult few weeks,” she said. “I had to kind of shut myself off from everybody and take a hard look at what my goals are, what I wanted to do after skiing, and what I could live with.”

She is, by almost any other measure, a young woman, just 34. “When I talk to pretty much anyone else about how I feel old, they laugh,” she said. Though she could retire to her Vail home and live off her celebrity, she doesn’t plan to. She’d like to eventually start a family. She is working on projects with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which she hopes will open doors in Hollywood. She’s writing a book, her second. She’ll take time to reflect, but she won’t just slump into a Barcalounger, remote control in hand.

“I tend to thrive in chaos,” she said.

Part of the chaos ended Sunday in Sweden with that one final downhill, the one in which she skied with a broken body but the same approach. Listen to how she evaluated her chances before the race:

“Most of the right-footed turns, the ones that affect my knee that’s bone-on-bone, they kind of help you,” she said. “The left-footed turns are the harder ones, so the hill actually kind of works with what I have. And I feel like I’ve kind of adapted to mentally blocking out the type of pain I have.”

She didn’t have to ski this weekend. She wanted to. Courageous and crazy all at once. Define Lindsey Vonn as a ski racer all you want, even the best of all-time. What she is, at her core, is a competitor. A fearless, bad-ass competitor who should be remembered not only for the races she won, but for her unrelenting insistence on getting back up and attacking again. At that, she has no peer.

barry.svrluga@washpost.com

Related slideshow: Lindsey Vonn, on and off the slopes (Provided by photo services)

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