Lindsey Vonn's sixth-place finish in the combined at the 2002 Salt Lake Games may have been easy to overlook, but she was just 17 years old, and it would stand as the best finish for an American woman in ski racing at those Games.
Even at that age, the little-known Ski Club Vail prodigy had been racing on the World Cup circuit for a year while taking correspondence courses to finish high school.
"I want to go to the prom and things like that, and I can't," she told me with wide-eyed innocence. "That's a little tragic, but it's my life and I like it."
Now, that part of her life is nearing an end. Because of a succession of knee injuries, Vonn announced Friday that she will retire after racing downhill and super-G at the world championships this month.
"My body is broken beyond repair and it isn't letting me have the final season I dreamed of. My body is screaming at me to STOP and it's time for me to listen," Vonn posted on Instagram.
After 395 World Cup races, 82 World Cup wins, more World Cup overall titles than any other American (four), four Olympic medals, seven world championships medals and two badly damaged knees that forced her to retire before she was ready, her record stands as the greatest for any female in the history of the sport.
I was fortunate to cover her Olympic debut in 2002 and had the privilege to watch her career unfold up close for more than half of her life. At the 2005 world championships in Bormio, Italy, when she finished ninth in the super-G, she was so upset she fled the scene without talking to reporters. I tracked her down later at the U.S. Ski Team hotel. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying.
"One thing that affects me a lot is when other people expect me to do things," she said, "and I expect myself to do things as well." It was her first major event as a legitimate medal contender, and in the two races that followed she finished fourth - missing two medals by a quarter of a second at the age of 20.
Back in Italy a year later for the 2006 Turin Olympics, she had a high-speed crash in downhill training so frightening that even veteran downhillers found it sickening to see. She was evacuated to the hospital by helicopter, leaving onlookers wondering if she'd been paralyzed. Two days later, badly battered and bruised, she finished sixth in the downhill, a performance for which she would later receive the Olympic Spirit award. After the race, I walked with her and her mother as they left the race venue. She had raced like one of the best downhillers in the world, but she shuffled off the mountain like an arthritic older woman in need of a hip replacement.
"I did what I had to do," she said that day. "I think anyone in my position would have done the same. It's the Olympics. You've got to go. You can't think twice about it."
By the time she got to the Vancouver Olympics four years later, she was the best in the world without dispute. She had won 31 World Cup races and two of her four World Cup overall titles. And despite a painful boot-top shin injury that made her wonder if she would be able to compete, she became the first American woman to win an Olympic downhill.
Watching her walk in pain two days earlier brought flashbacks from her experience in the Olympic downhill four years earlier, but she came through to win the gold medal that had been her dream since childhood. While Vonn celebrated, former downhill great Picabo Street proclaimed, "Now she is the greatest American female skier ever." Street had been Vonn's inspiration since they met at a ski show when Vonn was 9, and becoming a downhiller was the reason Vonn moved from her native Minnesota to Vail when she was 12.
“I've worked my whole life for this,” Vonn said. “I'm even more thankful to win, considering all the troubles that I've had. It makes it very sweet to have this victory.”
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Vonn won her third World Cup overall that season and a fourth two seasons later, but her career arc changed dramatically in February of 2013 when she crashed in a snowstorm at the world championships in Schladming, Austria, badly damaging her right knee. She hoped to be back in race form in time for the Sochi Olympics a year later, but she reinjured the knee three months before Sochi in a training accident at Copper Mountain. It is the continuing pain in that knee, and to a lesser extent her left knee, that has brought about her retirement at age 34 only four victories shy of the all-time World Cup record held by Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark.
In the seasons following Schladming she would win 23 more World Cup races, breaking the all-time women's record in 2015, but her right knee continued to hamper her. In the 2015 world championships at Beaver Creek, she managed only one medal - bronze in super-G - and she would claim only two more medals at major events, bronze at the 2017 world championships, another bronze at the 2018 Olympics. By last year she was making references to "my poor knee," which was bone-on-bone because of cartilage damage.
She will retire as the winningest female ski racer of all time while knowing that 23-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin of EagleVail is way ahead of her pace at the same age. Already Shiffrin has as many Olympic medals at Vonn (three) and more gold medals (two). She's well on her way to win her third consecutive World Cup overall this season, too.
I watched Vonn evolve from innocent to worldly, from an unknown Vail Valley girl to a worldwide celebrity. She dated Tiger Woods. Roger Federer is a friend. She became a regular at the ESPYs, but she also loved to sign autographs for children, especially girls. She wanted to be a role model for them as Street was for her, and she still does.
I will remember her for being a fierce competitor and a fitness maniac who never put skiing second, not even after she began to experience the glamour and fame that comes with being a female athlete who transcends her sport. She knows the high life, but even in her 30s, when I listen to her speak I often hear an echo of the little girl from Minnesota's Twin Cities who just wanted the world to love her for being a great skier.
She loved the red carpet events, but not as much as racing at 75 mph. She can still have the bright lights, but not the adrenaline rush of downhill racing she craved. No one, man or woman, has won as many downhills (43) or super-Gs (28) as she did.
“The thrill, the adrenaline, and the competition, just being on the mountain without having to worry about getting your pass taken away – going down as fast as you want – there's nothing that ever will replace that,” Vonn said during her last training camp last November at Copper Mountain when she knew retirement was near. “That's the hardest thing to accept."