On her second race after returning to the World Cup circuit on Jan. 21, Lindsey Vonn overcame all odds to win for the 77th time in her career. She had had an injury that severely fractured her right arm humerus bone six weeks earlier, and came back before any reasonable expectations, almost against medical advice.
“I did it!” she screamed at the finish line in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany after collapsing on the snow sobbing uncontrollably. That is the story of the hard-working Vonn, a 17-year veteran skier with many accolades, and the latest chapter of how the Vail-based skier has became the greatest athlete of all-time in her sport.
Skiing success is defined by wins, and Vonn’s record make the case for her. Since 2004 when the American won her first downhill event at Lake Louise, no skier has won more competitions or reached the podium more times than the 32-year-old. She has accomplished this 127 times, another record she holds among the women.
On the all-time list, the American is second overall, only nine victories shy of the Swede Ingemar Stenmark who holds the record for most World Cup wins. As long as she remains healthy, Vonn should reach the 86-win mark in the next 12 months.
Vonn’s dominance on the slopes presents a very interesting case study. She is always a threat in the speed races (Downhill and Super G), a fact she firmly established early on in her career. Her ability to zip down the fastest and most dangerous courses in the world has led her to many podium finishes but also to some very serious injuries. She missed the 2014 Sochi Olympics due to a knee injury suffered during the 2013 World Championship Super G in Schladming, Austria, a severe blow because she was expected to contend for at least three medals in Russia, adding to the two from Vancouver in 2010.
Speed races may be Vonn’s specialty, but to consider her the greatest skier of all-time, her resume must be a little more varied. This is where a very intriguing comparison can be made between the stellar American and another one of alpine skiing’s greats.
Annemarie Moser-Proll carved her way to a total of 62 wins during her 11 year-career. Unlike Vonn, she did not compete in the Super G because it did not exist in the World Cup at the time. Her fearlessness on the slopes gave her much success in the Downhill, but without a Super G to worry about, she saw a bit more success than Vonn in the tech disciplines.
This is the only knock on Vonn’s pristine alpine resume. Although she has won Giant Slalom, Slalom and Alpine Combined races, they only account for 12% of her wins (9 out of 77). Her longevity in the sport and her ability to recover from injuries at an almost superhuman level are intangibles that make any athlete shine just a bit brighter than everyone around them. Overlooking her somewhat disappointing record in the slower disciplines should not be seen as a flaw. It simply indicates that Vonn’s desire to go as fast as possible is the primary focus in her career, something that will undoubtedly define her legacy once she retires.
Stenmark, the all-time record holder, never won a race other than in the tech disciplines. Yet, he’s worldwide know as the King. Vonn should be Queen and Prime Minister by that measure.
When it comes to the Downhill and Super G disciplines, no skier has been more successful than Vonn. She holds 39 Downhill and 27 Super G World Cup titles. She tops Hermann Maier, another Austrian great, in the Super G by three wins, and will continue to hold the top spots in each discipline for the foreseeable future. She also holds multiple World Championship medals, and could collect some more in St. Moritz this February.
It is quite easy to make the case that Vonn is the greatest skier of all time. It is not a stretch to even call her one of the greatest athletes of our time. Her illustrious World Cup record coupled with her superhuman ability to recover from injuries make the American a unique athlete. She dominates her disciplines and is a threat in all the other events. In Alpine world she stands alone as the greatest ever to put on a pair of skis.