Just six months out from destroying her knee, Lindsey Vonn was back on skis in early September, roughly a year ahead of a regular human healing schedule and two months ahead of her game plan. Apparently they’ve been injecting Red Bull straight into her tibial plateau. Or something.
If all press is good press, Vonn had some great press this year. Between a prickly divorce, scuffling with the F.I.S. over her desire to race downhill against the men at Lake Louise, mysterious bouts of illness, maybe dating Tim Tebow, definitely dating Tiger Woods’ Evil Goateed Twin, impressive victories, and then exploding her knee in dramatic fashion at the World Championships, she was a media wet dream of drama and weirdness. No ski racer polarizes fans like Vonn, or generates anywhere near the vortex of chaos and publicity that surrounds her.
Although there were some critics of my take on the F.I.S. and Vonn’s request to race in the men’s DH, it was awesome to see how many great women skiers were stoked about the piece, from Olympians like Kerrin Lee-Gartner and Eva Twardokens to current national team members like Julia Mancuso. Striking how many seemed to prefer my proposed “Motherf*ckin Amazon Warrior Division” to the F.I.S.’s current “Ladies.”
Regardless of how you feel about her or her media presence, Vonn’s season should be remembered as historic beyond ski racing. Despite missing races due to illness, getting divorced, and blowing up her leg before the end of the tour, she still won the DH title and came in eighth overall. Impressive but it’s nothing compared to what she did at the Lake Louise stop of the tour.
Vonn’s rejected request to race against the men on that course, and her subsequent triple speed-event victory (there were back-to-back downhill races scheduled at Lake Louise, and she won the Super G as well) for the second year in a row, should go down in history, like Babe Ruth calling out his home run against the Cubs. I’m not saying she would come in top 10, but I’d be willing to bet that she would beat a number of men on that course, where she has now won nine times. Her margin in the first DH was a yawning 1.73 seconds over second place finisher Stacey Cook, who was having the best race of her life.
Let’s keep that in context. This is a woman legitimately asking to race against men (on a longer course) in a sport where physical strength is crucial and there is a significant risk of severe injury if you make a mistake or if you’re not strong enough to hang on. She’s the only woman on the tour racing on “men’s” skis. Given Vonn’s aggressive self-marketing, the request to race against the men may or may not have been attention-seeking, but her performance at Lake Louise backed up her claim with the maximum possible authority.
I’m not saying that she did it for any grand cause or that it’s changing the world, but the story sure as hell deserved more recognition and respect than it got. Is there a parallel in sports history? Could the F.I.S have blown a bigger promo opportunity when they denied her? Their track record of carefully protecting competitive skiing from anything resembling excitement or innovation (especially if it involves “ladies”) remains spotless.
The moment was washed away in the press by Vonn’s injury and the whole Tiger Woods thing, and the media missed its significance—although more than one well-intentioned sportswriter took the opportunity to patronize her. A Jim Caple column for ESPNW suggested that she was somehow hurting the other women skiers and needed to wait her turn, comparing her to Michelle Wie, a junior golfer who made her pro debut on the men’s tour. Which is insulting at best, given that Wie was a talented but unproven rookie, whereas Vonn has won everything possible against the best women in the world, and has the most wins by any U.S. racer…ever.
Sportswriters seem to worship the aggressive dickery in pursuit of victory that characterizes champions like Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong, yet feel compelled to lecture one of the best racers in history (in a sport where you can die) about waiting her turn and being ladylike. I’d like to see Caple explain his theories to a surly Eva Twardokens (below) after she’s had a couple of beers.
Meanwhile, Norwegian two-time overall World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal told the Canadian Press:
“To get America more involved in skiing would be good for us. From a marketing point of view, it seems very strange to just cut it off like that and say ‘not possible.’
“If I was the F.I.S., I would keep that door open. Those are the kind of stories that are bigger than the sport and the kind of stories that would be popular in America.
“I’ve trained with her. My experience is if you are on a hill that she likes and you don’t ski good, she can beat you. It’s realistic that she would be in the race.”
That’s is a world champion saying that Vonn could beat him. I think I prefer a voice of Male Authority that’s actually qualified to discuss the topic at hand.
Looking forward, it’s an Olympic winter and the women’s World Cup is ultra-deep with athletes who know how to win on a big stage. Vonn sustained a gnarly injury at the World Championships, one that would take a normal healthy human a year and a half for “recovery” if everything went right. But there doesn’t seem to be the slightest doubt that she will be 100 percent this season. Everyone has just accepted that she is a mutant super-human. Which is, given the recent history of “superhuman” athletes, somewhat ominous. But hey, great pro sports champions who sacrifice everything to win would never cheat, right?
For anyone that’s followed Vonn’s career (and it’s been hard to avoid), it’s clear that drama and stress don’t detract from her performance on snow. If anything, she seems to feed on it, or feed on blocking it out. And the crash in the Super G at Schladming, Austria, showed exactly how ruthless Vonn could be. There was fog on the course, flat light, and snow showers that were leaving drifts of soft, grabby snow on the course. Despite the situation and objections to course officials, when they refused to shut the race down, Vonn lit the candle. She didn’t crash because the course was sketchy, she crashed because the course was sketchy and she was pinning it like it was a perfect track on a bluebird day, skiing to win or crash.
In many scenarios, a person of Vonn’s temperament would be a liability. In ski racing, it makes her a threat, especially when the wheels are coming off. The crazier things get, the faster she skis.
Busted leg? Tiger Woods? Random urine tests at red carpet events? Gay Chechen terrorists attacking the Olympics? It’s all just going to make her faster. If I were a competitor, I would encourage her to explore yoga and buy her one of those machines that plays the sound of gentle rainfall and whale songs. The field is deep this winter and she’s coming off a major injury, but everyone still fears The Wrath of Vonn.