When you’re the best it can be tough coming to terms that you’re probably no longer the best – even more so when you’re suffering a lot of physical pain.
Lindsey Vonn is at a watershed moment. She’s sad her glittering ski career is coming to an end, but as she looks back on her career and forward to what the future might hold, Vonn has become increasingly fearful of the onset of arthritis should she race on to try to become the most successful skier ever.
The 34-year-old American needs five more wins on the World Cup circuit to beat Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 82, but she is adamant this will be her final season whatever.
“I want to be able to walk without pain when I’m older and hopefully some day I’ll be able to ski with my kids and that’s important to me,” Vonn told CNN’s Alpine Edge in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
Vonn will return for a one-off appearance at her favorite Lake Louise, Canada venue in November, but she insists she won’t be tempted to carry on should she be on the cusp of the record.
“I’ve extended my career probably longer than I should have already but I’m finally succumbing to what my body has been telling me for a while. That’s why I can’t keep going,” she said.
“There will be long-term effects – I will have arthritis, I will have joint pain, I will have a lot of pain in a lot of different places, but I still want to finish on my own terms.”
Lindsey Vonn: Greatest female skier retires
Vonn has been plagued with injuries throughout her career, and was only able to begin her farewell season Friday – placing 15th while wearing two knee braces in a downhill in Cortina – after damaging her knee in October.
Even with time running out, she believes she can reach Stenmark’s tally, but says that’s no longer her sole focus.
“You know, I’m still confident I can achieve it,” said Vonn. “I wouldn’t say I’m as fixated on that goal as I was in the past. With all the injuries I’ve had it’s definitely made me put things in perspective.
“I want to enjoy my last season, I don’t want to just think about the record and be mad at myself if I don’t get it.
“I’ve accomplished so much more in my career than I ever expected and I don’t think focusing only on this record is a good idea for me mentally, and it doesn’t sum up my career as a whole.”
Vonn empathized with Andy Murray’s potential farewell to his tennis career because of a long-term hip problem, and echoed his disappointment at how injury can cut sporting careers short.
“It’s not really about what I want, it’s about what I can physically do, and I just can’t physically do it anymore,” she said.
“It’s not really a lack of motivation or will or determination – I would keep going for many more years, I’ve no problem working hard and doing what I need to do in the gym, and obviously I love going fast, but my body doesn’t love going fast anymore.”
To replace the thrill of downhill ski racing, the fiercely driven Vonn has been discussing a move into Hollywood with her friend Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the wrestler-turned-movie star.
“He thinks I could be good at action films,” she says. “I’m not sure, I’ve never tried anything like that in my life, but he knows what he’s talking about. I do like to drive fast.”
Vonn made her World Cup debut at the age of 16 in 2000 and has suffered a string of injuries over the years, including major knee ligament damage which stopped her from defending her Olympic downhill title in Sochi in 2014.
But each time she has doggedly fought back to return to the sport, and she jokingly offered Murray the services of her physio.
“I told him to call my physical therapist because she does miracles. If anyone can bring him back, she can,” laughed Vonn, who is also looking forward to spending time with family and friends, and focusing on her business interests when she hangs up her skis.
Hot on her heels as the poster girl of women’s skiing is compatriot Mikaela Shiffrin who has become arguably the most dominant athlete in world sport – and Vonn believes she could rewrite the record books.
The 23-year-old Shiffrin has won 10 times this season to climb to 53 World Cup wins overall to sit third on the women’s all-time list behind Vonn and Swiss great Vreni Schneider.
“It’s incredible to watch what she’s doing and I’m sure she’s going to break many records down the road,” Vonn added.
“I hope she stays healthy and continues her success and I look forward to watching her when I get home on the couch.
“It’s really important for the sport to have someone like her and great for the US as well.”
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Looking ahead to ski racing in 20 years’ time, Vonn is worried about the effect of global warming on the sport.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen is the glaciers are melting at an incredible rate,” she said.
“The glaciers I went to when I was a kid don’t look anything remotely like they used to. You go up to Zermatt or Saas Fee or Hintertux or Soelden, they’ve got very little of the glacial ice they used to have.
“They are constantly having to push snow to fill in the crevasses because they’re getting bigger and bigger because it’s getting warmer and warmer. You see them using these tarps to try to save what little ice they can.
“It’s sad, not just for the sport but that’s our planet. It really irritates me and frustrates me that people don’t acknowledge global warming doesn’t exist.”