Greatness needs no modifier.
Lindsey Vonn has been chasing Ingemar Stenmark’s record of career World Cup victories for three years now, and doesn’t plan to stop until she’s topped it. She wants it for herself, the competitor in her aspiring to do something that everyone said could not be done.
And she wants it for all those little girls and young women out there, a visible, tangible reminder that they need not be second to anyone.
“I would like to be able to say and encourage young women to be the best that they can be, that there’s no limitations just because you’re a woman,” Vonn said. “I want to be the greatest. I don’t want to be the best female.
“I just want to be the best.”
Vonn spoke Saturday as part of an appearance for Bounty, which is featuring her and her dog Lucy in a commercial.
Stenmark’s 81 victories has long been considered one of sports’ most untouchable marks. It has stood since 1989 and, Vonn aside, no one has gotten within 20 wins of him. Think about that. Hermann Maier, Alberto Tomba, Bode Miller – all have sized up skiing’s Holy Grail, and all have come up short.
Stenmark wasn’t in Vonn’s sights early in her career. Annemarie Moser-Proell, who had been second with 62, wasn’t either.
But when you are a skier as dominant as Vonn, whose physical strength and ferocious speed has changed the nature of the sport, victories pile up. From 2008-13, she averaged eight victories a season – a career’s worth for most skiers.
Despite the devastating knee injury that kept her out of the Sochi Olympics and cost her the better part of two seasons, she had passed Moser-Proell by January of 2015.
“After I broke that record, I got closer and closer and closer to Ingemar and I kept hearing `best female skier.’ I don’t like that,” Vonn said. “As amazing as it is, as great of an accomplishment that it is, I don’t like the connotation at the front. I want to just be the greatest.”
Using her achievements as a means to empower young women and encourage them to strive for something they wouldn’t have otherwise is a deeply personal cause to Vonn. She got her passion for skiing from her father and beloved grandfather, whose Nov. 1 death served as an inspiration for her at these Games.
But it was an encounter with Picabo Street when she was 9 that changed the course of her life. Street won gold in the Super-G at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, and was the most notable female American skier before Vonn.
“I looked up to Picabo,” Vonn said. “She’s the sole reason I wanted to be an Olympian, because of her.”
Street would become a mentor to Vonn and, later, good friend. In fact, it was Street who encouraged Vonn to find a passion beyond skiing, something that could provide an outlet when the expectations and the pressure became too great.
That became the impetus for Vonn’s foundation, which is dedicated to empowering and supporting young women.
And much as Street once was to her, Vonn has tried to be a resource and friend to the younger skiers on the tour.
Vonn is loathe to talk about her legacy or assess the impact she has made on the sport. But when she’s asked about the respect the younger skiers on tour have for her, she cannot hide her pride.
Pyeongchang gold medalist Sofia Goggia is one of those who grew up watching Vonn, and now relies on the American for advice and support. A day after the downhill, where Vonn won the bronze medal, Goggia was already trying to lobby her to keep skiing through Beijing.
“She’s really digging in hard,” Vonn said, laughing.
Turning serious, she said, “Having their respect and competing with girls that watched me when they were growing up and are there because they watched me and have been inspired by me is so humbling.
“That’s something that goes far beyond the color of the medals.”
Medals and records are nice. But it’s the meaning behind them that makes them so memorable.
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.