There was a time not so long ago when downhill skiers were the most glamorous athletes at work. They took the same risks as race-car drivers and at similar speeds, but without the benefit of an automobile chassis to protect them.
Each of the greats – Killy, Klammer, Zurbriggen, et al – also gave off a regal air of dilettantism, as though they’d been born into a bigger world than the rest of us. Skiing wasn’t their job. It was their compulsion.
After winning a slalom gold at the Calgary Olympics, Alberto Tomba – son of an Italian plutocrat – used his postrace interview to remind his father he’d been promised a Ferrari if he won.
A generation of Canadian downhillers became famous for their sneering, kamikaze approach to the sport. They didn’t win all that much. But back then, people still held style in the same regard as substance. That’s not always a bad thing.
As in every other elite sport, money and professionalism killed off the romance.
Austria’s Hermann Maier was leader of the first generation of skiing cyborgs – the sort of competitor who had his blood tested daily to ensure optimal output.
Suddenly, these formerly swashbuckling figures spent entire interviews talking about their workout regimens and dietary restrictions. Skiing got boring.
Lindsey Vonn, who retired after a remarkable bronze in her final world championship downhill on Sunday, was a bridge between those two ideas of what a ski racer could or should be. She married the sport’s golden-age glamour with its modern obsession on hundredths of a second.
Vonn, 34, was born in Minnesota, weaned in Colorado and became a big deal in the Alps. In terms of her legacy, there are of course the wins.
Vonn is far and away the most successful women’s racer in history. She is the only woman to win a medal twice in the Olympic downhill. Her final tally of 82 World Cup victories is second only to the 86 notched by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark.
(In a lovely touch, the 62-year-old Stenmark was the first to greet Vonn as she came off the course on Sunday, handing her a bouquet of flowers. I’m sure he’s just as happy for her as he is for his own record.)
At her best from 2008-12, Vonn may have been the most dominant individual athlete at work in any discipline. She was world champion four times in five years. It was the rare stretch during which she was fully healthy.
Injuries defined Vonn’s career as much as podiums. Vonn could not help herself from attacking courses at full verticality, peak speed and maximum risk. After one gruesome crash in 2013, live microphones picked up Vonn shrieking in pain until medics could reach her. That spill cost her a shot at immortality at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
During her career, Vonn tore ligaments, was multiply concussed and broke just about every bone in her extremities.
In the end, it was too much. A week ago, Vonn described her body as “broken beyond repair.” She said it was “screaming” at her to quit. So she did. Wisely, she wrapped the whole thing up quickly – only a few days from announcement to retirement.
When a great competitor hangs them up, the done thing is to run over their snapshot moments. “Remember where you were when so-and-so won such-and-such?”
Vonn doesn’t summon up those sorts of memories. Not here, anyway. It’s her misfortune to have been born one ocean over from where skiing really matters. Had she been Swiss, there would already be a statue of her in Zurich.
In the American way of things, Vonn became more famous for her extracurriculars – posing for Sports Illustrated, dating Tiger Woods. She is currently in a relationship with Canadian hockey player P.K. Subban.
Some will say this is unfair. That an athlete of Vonn’s calibre ought only be judged on athletics.
But this was a throwback to what skiing and skiers once represented – that you could live like a rock star on your off days, and still throw down on Sundays. That’s the allure of the sport, though the sport has, to its detriment, forgotten that basic truth.
Vonn’s wattage and Nike-curated personality briefly put skiing back on the map as a global concern. She was the only modern skier the average punter could recognize.
At the Olympics in Pyeongchang, Vonn was already broken. Half of the sport’s observers thought she was near the end. The other half thought she was past it. She claimed to have been mostly healthy. Just last week, she admitted that had been a lie.
Vonn came to honour the memory of her grandfather, who’d taught her to ski back in Minnesota. He’d served in the Korean War. She won an unlikely bronze, scattered some of her grandfather’s ashes on the course and said, “A part of him is in South Korea always.”
All of Vonn’s stories came wrapped up in perfect narratives. Though half-crippled and with little hope of being higher, faster or stronger than anyone else, she was still the overwhelming star of Pyeongchang as it began. Her face was everywhere.
Now that Vonn is gone, she has no proper heirs among the current generation. Her records will probably fall, because that’s what records do. But nobody else in the game has that same charisma. They can’t take a niche pastime of the rich and make it accessible to millions who would never consider doing it.
In the end, that’s what Lindsey Vonn taught us – that real stardom is a lot more than doing something better than anyone else. It’s being better than everyone else with style.