CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy – It’s going to be an emotional weekend for Lindey Vonn.
Finally ready to open her injury-delayed final full season on the World Cup circuit, Vonn will also be racing in one of her favorite resorts for the last time.
“It’s kind of a lot to process. There’s a lot going on at one time,” Vonn said at a news conference Wednesday. “I’m trying to enjoy it as much as I can without getting too stressed out. I love it so much here.”
The resort nicknamed the “queen” of the Dolomites Range was where Vonn earned her first World Cup podium result back in 2004; and where she broke the all-time women’s wins record with victory No. 63 in 2015 — with a surprise visit from then-boyfriend Tiger Woods.
Vonn holds the Cortina record with 12 wins — a solid block of her total 82 World Cup victories — many of them involving close battles against previous Cortina record-holder Renate Goetschl (10 wins), fellow American Julia Mancuso and longtime rival Maria Hoefl-Riesch.
The only place Vonn has won more is in Lake Louise, Alberta, where she has 18 victories.
Vonn was planning on opening her season in Lake Louise in November until she injured her left knee in training a week before her scheduled first race.
“If there’s a place — minus Lake Louise — that I could make a return then I think Cortina would be No. 1 on my list,” Vonn said, speaking with her dog, Lucy, sitting on her lap.
“I was hoping that this last season would have been a lot different starting in Lake Louise but nothing in life seems to happen the way I hoped or planned. So I just take the cards that I’m dealt and I’ll play them with what I have.”
Vonn needs five more wins to break the all-time World Cup record of 86 victories held by Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark. And for the first time, the American will compete while knowing her retirement date.
“So that calculation of risk is different now, because this is my last season,” she said as she prepares for downhill races Friday and Saturday, followed by a super-G on Sunday. “I’m just going to go out there and ski like I did when I won my first podium here and whatever happens, happens. If I break the record then I will be very excited. If I don’t then I don’t.”
Having previously announced that she would retire at the end of this season, Vonn altered her plans after her injury and will now hang up her skis following the Lake Louise races at the beginning of next season.
And she says she won’t change those plans — even if she needs only one more win to break the record after Lake Louise.
“Unfortunately my body is telling me it’s enough,” Vonn said. “It’s not for lack of motivation or lack of desire or lack of will, it’s a lack of cartilage to be honest. My body can’t continue to do what I love.”
Vonn’s right knee is permanently damaged from previous crashes, and she wears braces on both legs when skiing. The 34-year-old has had to fight back from injuries many times: torn ACLs, fractures near her left knee, a broken ankle, a sliced right thumb, a concussion and more.
“I hope to be able to free ski when I have kids down the road,” Vonn said. “I need to stop now so that I’m not having a lot of problems when I’m older. Skiing has always been my No. 1 but it’s time to look at the future.”
When Vonn claimed her first podium result in 2004 by finishing third in a downhill it was a career breakthrough.
“I remember calling my dad and crying on the phone and saying that I finally made it,” Vonn said. “That was one of the first times that I felt like I really belonged on the World Cup.
“It was because I really understood Cortina as a race hill and I finally perfected my mental routine in Cortina and I honestly haven’t changed anything in my preparation since that day.”
When Vonn broke the all-time wins record held by Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell, it was another special Cortina moment.
“My whole family was there and there was obviously a lot of pressure,” Vonn recalled. “My mom, my dad, my step mom, my step dad — everyone came over. ... That was a really big milestone in my career.”
The scenery in Cortina is spectacular enough to match the memories. The Olympia delle Tofane course is set amid spectacular jagged peaks and rock outcroppings — usually framed by clear blue skies and drenched in sunshine.
“There’s nothing quite like when get up to the top of the chairlift and you’re waiting for inspection and the sun is rising and it’s kind of orange and red and you can see the whole valley,” Vonn said. “It’s one of the most beautiful sites in the world.”
On Sunday, Vonn will take in that view for the final time as a World Cup racer.