It’s what captivated Lindsey Vonn when she was a little girl in Minnesota, even if the hills she was skiing then were more molehills than mountains. It’s what propelled her to the pinnacle of her sport, arguably the greatest ski racer of all time.
And it’s what keeps bringing her back, despite all the injuries and long having had nothing more to prove.
“I love going fast,” Vonn said, her joy unmistakable as she grinned and let out a big laugh. “When I moved out to Colorado, I was always the person trying to beat all the other kids and going fast.
“It’s fun. Going fast is fun. Every time I get to do a downhill or I’m going fast, I get to the bottom and I’m smiling. I’m grinning ear to ear because it’s just so invigorating. You feel so alive and so fresh and so free.”
Vonn is doing a lot of grinning these days, heading into the Pyeongchang Olympics on one of the hottest streaks of her career. She has won five of her last eight races, including both downhills over the weekend in Garmisch, Germany, and now needs just five wins to match Ingemar Stenmark’s all-time World Cup record.
“It has really been the exact preparation that I was hoping for going into South Korea,” Vonn told The Associated Press after Sunday’s win.
Push a snowball down a mountain, and it will find the fastest, most direct route to the bottom. It’s called the fall line, and in ski racing, the objective is to hew as close to it as possible while still maintaining control.
It takes technique and skill, of course. But it takes guts, too, the steely resolve to hold that line when sanity and self-preservation says to back off, to take the foot off the throttle, even if only for a millisecond.
“It’s not something you can teach, that mentality,” said Picabo Street, the 1998 Olympic champion in Super-G. “You can’t teach someone to love that fall line. To try and be in it as much of the time as possible and seek that out, constantly.”
Because for as big a rush as it is, it’s an even bigger risk.
Orthopedic residents or physical therapists could make a semester-long case study of Vonn’s many injuries. Arm. Finger. Head. Back. Knee. Knee again. Shin. The other knee. There are very few parts of her body that have not been broken, shattered or badly bruised.
The injuries have cost her big chunks of the previous four seasons, to say nothing of a few more Olympic medals. She finished eighth in the downhill in Turin, two days after she was airlifted to a hospital following a scary crash in training. She missed the Sochi Olympics after reinjuring her knee about six weeks before the Games.
Even in Vancouver, where she won gold in the downhill and a bronze in Super-G, she skied with a badly bruised shin.
“I don’t look at it and think, `Wow, I’m so unlucky,’” Vonn said. “I think, `Wow, I’ve worked really hard. I’m a very strong person and I’ve overcome a lot.’ So I don’t look at it as a negative at all.”
And for all of her accomplishments, it’s that strength that might be her most enduring legacy.
The physical resilience is, of course, obvious.
“Every time she’s been injured, she’s tackled that injury like it was another event. Many months long, painful recoveries, a tremendous amount of physical rehab and physical therapy. Her ability to overcome that is extraordinary,” said Tiger Shaw, a two-time Olympian who is now the president and CEO of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.
“Most athletes who’ve had the kind of injuries she’s had would be slowed down,” he said. “She’s showed it doesn’t matter to her. When she comes back it’s like nothing happened.”
But the power and confidence she presents off the snow has made an impact, too.
Vonn grew up idolizing Street, whom she met for the first time when she was 9 and who eventually became a mentor and a friend. As Vonn’s career began to blossom, Street recommended that she find some way to pay her success and good fortune forward.
It’s a way to widen the bubble that eventually closes in all star athletes – especially those who achieve the level of crossover fame Vonn has.
“After a while, you start to go, `OK, hang on. This is a little too much. Let me put my sunglasses on and turn around and see who I can share this with,’” Street said.
Vonn started the Lindsey Vonn Foundation, which supports girls and young women through scholarships, camps and speaker series. To see its impact, look no further than American teammate Jackie Wiles, who, until a devastating crash Saturday, was part of the U.S. team for Pyeongchang.
When Wiles was struggling to pay for her training and travel two years ago, Vonn and her foundation pitched in to help. Since then, Wiles has made her first two World Cup podiums, including sharing the stage when Vonn won her 79th race last month.
Vonn’s influence can be seen at the grassroots level, too. Street now runs the Picabo Street Academy in Park City, Utah, a program that helps promising young athletes balance education with the travel required for training and competitions. There’s a different attitude in the young, female skiers she sees now, and Street attributes a large part of that to Vonn.
“She’s made it cool to be strong and beautiful. She hasn’t been alone in that but, whoo, she’s made a big impact,” Street said. “(Young girls) are wearing pink and purple, they’ve got the girlie stuff splashed here and there. That was something I could never accomplish, and I love that she did.
“That’s one of the best legacies she’s going to look back on,” Street added. “I don’t even know if she realizes how big that is.”
Probably not. Ski racing has taken Vonn to places and heights she never imagined. Strip away the records and the celebrity and everything else, however, and what’s left is what enchanted her all those years ago.
“I just wanted to ski fast. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Vonn said. “I love what I do. When I was a kid, I wasn’t the coolest kid. I wasn’t the popular kid. I was just the kid that was always on the mountain.”
Looking for that fall line, and the rush alongside it.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.