All she wanted, Lindsey Vonn said, was to stay out of the fence, get to the finish and see the green one more time. She got her wish. At the bottom of the hill, she saw the scoreboard. She had covered the course in a fraction over 62 seconds. And it was indeed lit up in green.
“I just wanted to come down and be in the lead one last time, even if it didn’t last,” she said. “And not to crash. That was pretty important.”
She was, she added, more nervous than she had ever been in her life. Crouching in the start hut, she gripped and regripped the handles of her poles and slapped her skis on the snow as the pips sounded to launch her down the opening chute, accelerating from a standstill to 100kph in barely 10 seconds.
She was the third starter, which meant that there were 34 more to come in Sunday’s world championship downhill race at Åre in Sweden. The next five came through the finish without matching the American’s time. Then came Ilka Stuhec, the defending champion. The Slovenian clipped just under half a second off Vonn’s time, and that would turn out to be good enough for the win. Ten racers later, Corinne Suter of Switzerland descended fast enough to push Vonn down to third. And that was where she stayed, with a place on the podium at the end of the very last race of one of the great sporting careers.
Poor conditions meant that the course had been shortened, which would once have been a source of regret. In her younger days, the power in her 5ft 10in frame would have soaked up the lactic burn inflicted by the extra 600m. Joints since worn and damaged by season after season of top-class racing would not have creaked. Only a year ago she won the last of her 43 World Cup downhill victories on the full piste at Åre, but now it was different. At the age of 34 it came as a relief to hear the commissaires’ decision that – in the words of Bode Miller, analysing the race for Eurosport – took the teeth out of the course.
“I can’t ski the way I want to ski any more,” Vonn told her former Olympic teammate afterwards. “I can’t train. My knees just won’t take it. I wanted to step aside while I can still walk.”
On Wednesday, racing in the women’s super-G, she had run straight into a gate at high speed and flown across the piste before smashing into the barriers. It looked bad. The paramedics were quickly on the scene with a blood-wagon and it was a relief when she eventually got to her feet, clipped her boots back into her bindings and floated down the remainder of the course at recreational speed. But it meant that she started Sunday’s downhill with a popped rib, a bruised shoulder and a black eye. Despite the pain, competing against women as young, hungry and supple as she once was, she finished with a bronze medal.
Those injuries would be the last entry in the catalogue of breaks, strains and bruises that run alongside the list of honours topped by her gold medal on Blackcomb mountain in Whistler, British Columbia, in the 2010 Winter Olympics and four overall World Cup titles. Now there will be no more of the appointments with surgeons and physiotherapists that have eaten up lengthy passages of her life since she made her World Cup debut at the age of 16, more than half her lifetime ago.
Ski racing is not like Formula One. There are no guarantees. The competitors are often injured and weather conditions play a much bigger part. Which is why a long and prolific career like that of Vonn – and of Ingemar Stenmark, the Swedish slalom specialist whose record of 86 World Cup wins she had hoped to surpass (she finished with 82), and with whom she shared an embrace at the end of Sunday’s run – is such a marvel.
Twenty four hours earlier, in rather different conditions, another important career ended in Åre. Thick snow was falling as Aksel Lund Svindal plunged through the murk, the final section of the downhill piste illuminated by the floodlights normally used for nocturnal slaloms. At 36, the Norwegian was also saying goodbye to a career that included two Olympic golds, two World Cup overall titles, and three dozen individual World Cup wins in downhill, super-G and giant slalom.
His teammate Kjetil Jansrud had already raced, and stood at the top of the timings. Having ploughed through the loose snow lying on top of the packed piste, Svindal cut the timing beam two hundreths of a second slower than his friend and rival. “It’s somehow a little romantic, battling your friend for a medal,” Jansrud said. Had they started side by side, he would have won by just a quarter of the length of one of his skis.
“It’s been an emotional couple of weeks,” Svindal said of the buildup. “I was just ready to get it over. Hammer one last time, and that’s it.” Like Vonn, he did not need the win in order to bow out in glory. Both of them have all the medals they could ever need. But making the podium demonstrated that they retained their quality to the end.
He might have been speaking for both of them when he said one more thing before he left the stage for the last time: “You’ve got to make it a life worth living.” And to know, as some do not, when to move on.
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