There was no reason to push too hard, so Lindsey Vonn straightened up at the end of her downhill training run on Monday, cruising across the finish line. Television cameras caught her exhaling long and loud.
The greatest female ski racer in U.S. history had officially begun the final week of her career.
“I just want to ski my best,” she told a Eurosport interviewer at the bottom of the hill. “I don’t know what level that is right now.”
Slowed by age and aching knees, the 34-year-old has announced her retirement after these world championships in Are, Sweden. That leaves only two more races – the super-G on Tuesday followed by the downhill on Sunday – to cap nearly two decades of world-class competition.
“It’s been an emotional two weeks making the hardest decision of my life,” Vonn recently told her 1.7 million Instagram followers, “but I have accepted that I cannot continue ski racing.”
Given the circumstances, she performed well enough on Monday, getting a feel for the snow and terrain, ultimately tying for the 11th-fastest time despite taking the first run down the hill, a training position she dislikes. It didn’t change her plans to call it a career Sunday.
Vonn initially intended to compete through the end of the season before submitting to the pain that hampered her skiing through early races.
Known for brute power and ferocity, she has looked brittle this winter, lacking the strength to lean into high-speed turns.
“My body is broken beyond repair and it isn’t letting me have the final season I dreamed of,” she wrote. “My body is screaming at me to stop and it’s time for me to listen.”
A more fitting goodbye might have included five more World Cup wins, moving her past Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark for all-time victories. But falling short of that record doesn’t tarnish the legacy of the only American woman to capture an Olympic downhill and four overall World Cup titles.
First skiing at age 2, the Minnesota native broke onto the world scene in 2000 – she was known by her maiden name, Kildow, then – before collecting her first World Cup victory in the downhill at Lake Louise, Alberta, four years later.
Promising results at the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics made for huge expectations at the 2010 Vancouver Games, where she arrived with a badly bruised shin. Despite the injury, Vonn won the downhill and earned bronze in the super-G.
“The best day of my life by far,” she said after winning that historic gold.
In the years that followed, she added a downhill bronze from the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and increased her World Cup count to 82 victories. That is 20 more than the next closest woman, Annemarie Moser-Proll of Austria, and nearly 30 more than current U.S. star Mikaela Shiffrin.
Aksel Lund Svindal, the Norwegian men’s star who is also retiring this week, called it “one of the biggest careers ever in sports.”
Skiing was only part of Vonn’s fame.
Her good looks and long, blond hair led to magazine spreads – including a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot before Vancouver – and red-carpet appearances. Two-plus years of dating golfer Tiger Woods generated even more headlines.
Their relationship ended in 2015, with Woods stating on his web site: “Unfortunately, we lead very hectic lives and are both competing in demanding sports. It’s difficult to spend time together.”
As Vonn’s racing career continued, the pursuit of Stenmark’s record would fall victim to a life of skiing so aggressively.
“I have always pushed the limits of ski racing and it has allowed me to have amazing success but also dramatic crashes,” she wrote.
Those spectacular wipeouts left her with permanent knee damage, torn ligaments, multiple fractures and concussions. Injury kept her out of the 2014 Sochi Olympics and, as the surgeries piled up, her ability to race at top speed diminished.
In the recent social media post, Vonn noted that she underwent yet another surgery last spring, having a large portion of cartilage removed. A painful crash at Copper Mountain, Colo., in November left her with additional torn ligaments and three fractures.
“We have been so lucky to have been able to share many of Lindsey’s extraordinary achievements,” U.S. Ski & Snowboard President Tiger Shaw said in a statement. “But now the time is right for Lindsey to call time on her incredible career.”
Word of her impending retirement prompted accolades from the sports world and beyond, with Billie Jean King calling her “a true champion” and Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, saying she “will go down as one of the greatest of all time.”
Gian Franco Kasper, president of the international ski federation, mused to the Associated Press that her departure will “leave a big hole” in skiing.
Vonn brushed it all off with a smile after her training run on Monday, saying the course seemed “organized and safe,” and that her knees held up well enough.
Asked about her hopes for the week, she sounded like someone trying to enjoy herself.