I had a friend once who liked to liven up a long nighttime desert drive by turning the headlights off at 70 miles an hour and refusing to turn them on until I freaked out. This will be relevant later.
I know it’s getting old, and I promise to write about Lara Gut, Mikaela Shiffrin, and up-and-coming Italian speed event specialist Federica Brignone next time, but there’s just no getting around the fact that Lindsey Vonn is out of her goddamn mind. There was a time not so long ago when her doing a jaybird naked body paint photo shoot for Sports Illustrated would have been the best shot for attention from the Core Ski Media. But not anymore, and that makes me proud.
I’ve called out her historic performances before, noted that she races to win or crash, and laid on plenty of literary exaggeration to emphasize her almost bloodthirsty attitude toward her own body/fate in a sport where you can die. And until she broke her tibial plateau in Andorra, Vonn was predictably fired up (and crushing it) coming off of injury and surgery last year.
But skiing on a broken leg? Wait, I’m sorry—winning a World Cup downhill on a broken leg?* Is she even a human being? How does that feel for her competitors, getting beaten by a crazy woman with a broken leg? I doubt any of them thought they were signing on for that. It’s like a horror movie.
*It was actually the downhill portion of the combined (DH/SL) race in Andorra, but still, that’s a downhill against World Cup racers, if not all of the DH specialists. Vonn raced the slalom portion as well.
A lot of people admire that spirit and take inspiration from it, but I feel something closer to the atavistic fascination of watching dangerous animals like sharks, or polar bears.
I have friends who have cracked a tibial plateau and been out for seasons, plural, but I’d be willing to bet that Vonn will be racing next winter. And she will probably pass the great Swede Ingemar Stenmark’s record for the most career World Cup wins to become, by any numeric measure, the best ski racer of all time.
Despite all the interviews and promo she’ll do, we’ll never know what creates that kind of motivation. A lot of people admire that spirit and take inspiration from it, but I feel something closer to the atavistic fascination of watching dangerous animals like sharks, or polar bears. There’s something scary there, and I’m just glad she found an outlet that’s safe for the rest of us, if not for her.
So, in a ski-journalistic effort to face my fears and get inside the head of the winningest female ski racer of all time (and since there’s no way she’s going to give me an interview), I decided to go out on the hill and freeski like Lindsey Vonn would, if she ever freeskis, which I doubt very much because she has weights to lift and Faustian pacts to make with Satan. I wouldn’t just pretend to be Lindsey Vonn, I would become Lindsey Vonn, to the extent that a middle-aged male ski bum with a mild-to-moderate beer habit could by just skiing around on Mammoth Mountain and pretending to be Lindsey Vonn.
And I did. I went out on the hill on a nice smooth windpack Thursday and skied like Lindsey Vonn would freeski, if she ever freeskis. WWLVD? I asked myself as I felt the Wrath of Vonn take over and laid into a warm-up Super G turn at about 50 miles an hour. She would pin it, all day long.
It was, frankly, a terrifying experience, one that didn’t help the mild-to-moderate beer habit in the short term. But I did exactly WLVWD. I skated straight off the lifts, holeshotted through clusters of people, passed everyone on the groomer, snaked people’s lines, jockeyed in the lift maze, and hot-lapped high-speed kamikaze runs until I snagged a rut at about 60 on the runout below Chair 23 and almost broke my own tibial plateau. Which is where the actual Vonn would have immediately returned to hit that rut again but faster and harder, and where I retired to the outdoor bar down by Chair 2 to rehab my tibial plateau with beer.
As I sat there in the afternoon sun, sipping cold rehab, and squinting at backlit skiers happily flailing on the groomer in front of the bar, I took ski-journalistic stock of my afternoon as Lindsey Vonn. It didn’t feel like I expected, like I was a god or a monster with madness and power throbbing in my veins, or like the breathless animal joy of the true adrenaline addict.
No; it felt like hurtling down a desert highway at night with the headlights off, and being perfectly fine with that.
PHOTO: Erich Speiss/Red Bull Content Pool