PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Lindsey Vonn is a grown woman of enormous professional accomplishment and a personal life that has played out in public over the past decade-and-a-half. She was married and divorced. She was estranged from her father, and then reconciled. She was an Olympic champion, in the conversation as the best Alpine skier in history, and then her body was broken.
Friday afternoon, as she prepared for her fourth – and likely final – Olympics, she sobbed.
This Olympics provides such a stage for Vonn, who is skiing as well as she has since the last Olympics – which she missed with a bad knee. She is experienced, a star within the insular world of Alpine skiing, but an established, familiar face who can sell watches and milk and athletic wear to a wider audience. She dated Tiger Woods. She is friends with fashion designers. She is a public figure, writ large.
And yet, when she opened up at a news conference here Friday in the hours before the opening ceremony, her story was reduced again to where it started: a personal tale. In December, her paternal grandfather, Don Kildow, died. He was 88, the reason Vonn’s father Alan began skiing, and therefore the reason Lindsey took up the sport.
“I miss him so much,” Vonn said, and there were the tears.
There is so much about her appearance here that is intriguing, because after those seasons lost to injury – and the frustration of sitting home and missing Sochi – she is roaring into these Games. Last weekend, she won a pair of World Cup downhill races at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, the latest indication that she is fit and fearless again. She is 33, and is openly talking about, almost certainly, being her last Olympics. Yet she is in position to contend for medals - gold, even – in the three events she will contest, downhill, Super-G and combined.
But the Olympics are nothing if not a vehicle for stories of personal struggle and heartache.
“I want so badly to do well for him,” Vonn said. “I miss him so much. He’s been such a big part of my life, and I really hoped that he would be alive to see me. But I know he’s watching, and I know that he’s going to help me, and I’m going to win for him.”
Those sentences read smoothly, and the sentiments are real. But from start to finish, Vonn had to stop and start, unsuccessfully choke back tears, and downright cry. She struggled, and it’s clear that these emotions, so close to the surface, will provide the backdrop for her performances, which don’t get under way until the Super-G on Feb. 17.
But what we’re watching here, as Vonn skis for her grandfather, is nothing short of a legend. Mikaela Shiffrin is the reigning World Cup overall champion, the skier who filled Vonn’s absence in Sochi by winning gold in slalom. With all Vonn’s travails – she figures, given all her injuries, she has spent three complete years in rehab – it was easy to downplay her potential impact here.
Yet those two wins last weekend were the 80th and 81st of her career. Know how many people have ever won more? One: Swedish icon Ingemar Stenmark. So the waxheads who chew on debates about the best of all-time must mix genders in the conversation. Stenmark’s victories came exclusively in slalom and giant slalom. Vonn is known for her love for speed, but she has multiple wins in all five disciplines.
“In my opinion, she’s the best there’s ever been in the modern era,” said Bode Miller, the former American star and World Cup overall champion who could ski any discipline well. “And I would say she’s the best there’s been even compared to Stenmark, because Stenmark wasn’t able to compete in all the different events. Even though he had more wins, he had a different schedule than her and had many more opportunities and different risk tolerance.”
Risk tolerance. Vonn’s body would be in better shape if she didn’t tolerate so much risk. It is the way a downhiller must think, the way a downhiller must live. But it has caused her bones to break and her body to bend in ways it probably shouldn’t. When she was 17 and made her Olympic debut at the Salt Lake City Games – heck, even when she sailed into the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as the main attraction – she was healthy, a physical force.
“In 2010, I was a much healthier athlete,” Vonn said. “But in 2018, I’m a much stronger athlete, not just physically but mostly mentally. I’ve overcome a lot. I know what I’m capable of, and I think I know how to handle myself better than I did.”
That includes in how to carry her grandfather’s memory. Don Kildow served in the Army Corps of Engineers during the Korean War, and before his passing, Vonn had planned to figure out a way to bring him back across the Pacific to see her final Olympic races. As he raised his family on a farm in rural Milton, Wisconsin, he built a tiny ski hill with a tow rope. It’s where Alan Kildow learned to ski, where Lindsey first took runs down a 150-foot vertical drop. Before Vonn headed back onto the World Cup circuit last fall, she made what has become an annual sojourn back to their simple house, where she sleeps on a house in the basement.
It was her last visit with her grandfather. And that colors her entire trip here.
“I feel really good, because it’s not really about me or my career,” Vonn said. “It’s about my grandfather.”
The future, beyond these Games, is somewhat hazy. Vonn is intent on skiing at least one more season in pursuit of Stenmark’s record 86 World Cup victories. “I think next year I can get beyond that,” she said. Beyond that, her knees will tell her when to quit. They are speaking more loudly all the time.
In Pyeongchang, though, retirement is not an issue or an option. Linsdey Vonn has been an Olympian since she was a teenager. She has skied through personal strife and physical disaster. Now, one more time, she encounters a different set of circumstances.
“I have someone looking out for me,” she said.