Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 20, 2019

Another Star Faces The Inevitable

By circumstance and the unfolding of events rather than by forethought or design, this space has lately seen its share of stories about the end of career arcs in several of our games. Some have been about what are likely only temporary exits – the involuntary departures of the NHL’s Joel Quenneville and the NFL’s Mike McCarthy as head coaches – and thus are really accounts of the closing of a career with a specific franchise, not truly tales of a final chapter.

Other pieces, such as those on the Mets’ trade for Robinson Cano and the Angels’ signing of free agent Matt Harvey, have highlighted the inherent risk in acquiring even a great player once he reaches a certain age; while the posts detailing the golfing exploits of Lee Westwood and Matt Kuchar have reminded us that in what is truly a sport for life greatness is still achievable at an age counted as advanced in most games.

While the Kuchar and Westwood stories evoke the eternal hope of all great athletes, most of these posts have inevitably been tinged with sadness. That was especially true of the two that were hardest to write, the chronicles of Carmelo Anthony and Andy Murray, very different young men in very different sports, both confronting the harsh truth that whether through a decline in skills or the onset of injury, no athlete has ever outraced time.

That emotion was again present when perusing this weekend’s sports headlines. There was 40-year-old New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees going from hero to goat, outplaying his far younger counterpart for most of the NFC Conference Championship, only to throw a critical interception in overtime. Brees could then only stand on the sidelines and watch as Jared Goff moved the Los Angeles Rams into position for the game winning 57-yard field goal, sending L.A. to the Super Bowl and making the 24-year-old Goff the youngest quarterback to win an NFC title game. There was 37-year-old Roger Federer, arguably the greatest men’s tennis player ever, chased from the Australian Open in the fourth round by 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas. There was 48-year-old Phil Mickelson, trying to sustain the recent magic of his two fellow forty-something golfers by going wire-to-wire at the PGA Tour’s Desert Classic, but in the end coming up one stroke short in the final round.

Then there was Lindsey Vonn. While the outcomes at the Superdome or in Melbourne or southern California may have hinted at melancholy, Brees has a contract that extends through next season, Federer will be serving again in Dubai next month, and Mickelson will next tee it up in just two weeks at the Phoenix Open. But based on her comments after failing to finish a World Cup super-G in Italy on Sunday, Vonn’s competitive career appears to be over. Arguably as important is that her performance through the weekend at Cortina d’Ampezzo provided strong evidence that at hard as it must be, it’s time for Vonn to walk away. And while there is great sadness in thinking about alpine skiing without Vonn, there is something worse – anguish – in contemplating one more star athlete attempting to remain in the spotlight for too long.

Vonn is a native of Minnesota, where her father had her on skis at the age of two. A childhood meeting with her hero Picabo Street led to a relationship that gave Vonn a valuable mentor during her early seasons on the far-flung alpine skiing tour. She made her World Cup debut in late 2000 as a 16-year-old and skied in her first Olympics in 2002. Sustained success began while she was still a teenager in 2004, when she took a silver medal in the downhill at the U.S. Championships and added her first World Cup victory in that discipline at the end of the year.

Her name became familiar to sports fans beyond the relatively few dedicated followers of alpine skiing in 2008, when she captured her first overall World Cup title, becoming the first American woman to do so in a quarter century. That fame quickly grew when the first championship was followed by another the next year, and then a third in a row in 2010. In all Vonn has won the overall championship four times, a feat matched by only one other woman skier. She also became the first American woman to win gold in the Olympic downhill with a victory at Vancouver in 2010. She’s one of just a half-dozen women to post World Cup victories across all five alpine disciplines – downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom, and super combined. Vonn has stood on World Cup podiums a total of one hundred thirty-seven times, and on the top step eighty-two times. That’s a record for women skiers and just four short of Ingemar Stenmark’s overall record of eighty-six World Cup victories.

In a dangerous sport where injuries are frequent, Vonn has had more than her share. At the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, she was airlifted off the mountain after a horrific crash during a training run. Remarkably, despite a badly bruised hip, she returned to competition two days later. The following year an ACL sprain ended her season early. There was a cut tendon in her right hand in 2009, a broken left arm in 2010, and a concussion in 2011. Then, beginning in 2013, Vonn suffered a series of increasingly worrisome injuries to her knees and legs that kept her off the slopes for long periods. Yet every time she pushed herself through difficult rehabs and returned to competition, always with one eye on Stenmark’s record.

Last October Vonn announced that she would retire at the end of this season, although she still hoped that moment would come after at least four more victories. But following that announcement her return to racing was delayed by yet one more knee injury. Finally came this weekend at Cortina d’Ampezzo, where Vonn has won a record twelve times. But in Friday’s first downhill she finished 15th, and in a second downhill race on Saturday she could only improve to 9th. Then on Sunday came the super-G. Halfway down the course Vonn clipped a gate. Thrown slightly off-line, she couldn’t apply enough pressure on her right leg to get back on track. When Vonn failed to clear the next gate, she was out of the race. Met at the bottom by long-time rival and now close friend, the reigning Olympic downhill champion Sofia Goggia, Vonn broke into tears.

Fans saw that racing with braces on both knees means Vonn no longer has the power and strength needed in her lower body to contend for a spot on the podium. Shortly after her embrace with Goggia, Vonn acknowledged as much, telling reporters that she might retire immediately. She qualified that by acknowledging her emotional state, adding “I’ll let you guys know.” But the evidence on a mountain that has long been Vonn’s friend was plain. For the sake of both her health and her legacy, fans should hope that after taking time to think it over, her head will agree with Lindsey Vonn’s heart.

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Responses

  1. I hope that Ms. Vonn can get to a point in her life where, when looking back at her skiing career, she can say, “That’s what I did, that’s not who I am.” She has a long life ahead of her with much experience to share and a lot of motivation to offer.

    I wish her well.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. I share your sentiment, but note that since I posted Vonn has announced that she intends to return to racing. I suspect those of us who have never been on a stage like that can’t really imagine how hard it must be to leave it voluntarily. As you said, I too wish her well.

      M-


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