Lindsey Vonn's greatness and influence transcend alpine skiing
American star has made a career of recovering from setbacks
LAKE LOUISE, Alta. — As a little girl, Kaillie Humphries plastered posters of Austrian ski legend Hermann Maier and American Bode Miller on her bedroom wall.
"I was a ski racer, and I looked up to the heroes of my sport," says Humphries, who switched to bobsleigh and won two Olympic gold medals (so far) for Canada. "But these days, I know there are tons of young girls who have Lindsey Vonn posters in their rooms. They look at her and see the best in the world. She dominates. She gets rewarded.
"She lives the fairy-tale life that comes with being the best."
The fairy tale took a discouraging turn this weekend in Lake Louise, which is nicknamed "Lake Lindsey" for her routine dominance over the years.
On Friday, Vonn was en route to her 19th World Cup victory on this track when she crashed through three layers of safety netting on the final turn of the women's season-opening downhill.
Somehow, Vonn dragged herself out of bed Saturday and placed 12th in the downhill, only to crash again in Sunday's super-G on a slick section near the top of the track.
Surprising turn of events
A surprising turn of events? Sure. But Vonn has made a career of coming back from setbacks both on and off the mountain.
"I just feel a bit deflated overall," Vonn said Sunday, sporting a nasty gash on the bridge of her nose and a swollen knee. "The lucky thing is that I'm relatively healthy. My main focus this season has always been the Olympics."
At 33, Vonn already has an Olympic gold medal (in the 2010 downhill) to go with four World Cup overall titles. She is the most decorated female skier in history with 77 World Cup victories and is closing in on the men's record of 86, which belongs to Ingemar Stenmark.
Her dominance is such that a Vonn downhill run is akin to a Roger Federer backhand or a Wayne Gretzky wraparound from behind the net.
"Sometimes, I think when you see that on a daily basis, you forget how special it is," says Max Gartner, former president of Alpine Canada. "Lindsey is just so professional. She has a real competitive instinct to win. Once she's on course, she makes it look so easy. That's the sign of a real champion."
Vonn is one of those rare Olympic athletes with a reach that extends far beyond the sports pages or nightly highlight packages. Indeed, she is as comfortable on the red carpet as she is ripping down gnarly slopes at 135 km/hr.
On Twitter, she boasts more than 954,000 followers — many of whom fretted nervously over her well-being after both of her Lake Louise crashes.
On Saturday, she went live on Instagram — where she is followed by 1.1 million — when a power outage left her stranded high above the mountain in a stalled chair lift.
"There's another level with Lindsey," said ski analyst Brian Stemmle. "It's because of the social media stuff, because of [previously] dating Tiger Woods, because of being on The Tonight Show… When she's around, there's a real buzz. You can feel it. It's like at the Invictus Games when Prince Harry would walk into one of the venues. There would just be this buzz and this noise, because they could sense that royalty was around.
"She's definitely royalty around these parts."
Pushing the boundaries
Vonn's royal legend will only grow if the International Ski Federation (FIS) approves her renewed request to race in the 2018 men's World Cup downhill at Lake Louise.
"It's great to see her pushing the boundaries and only makes it easier for those who follow," said Hayley Wickenheiser, the first woman to score a goal in a men's professional hockey game. "My view is that you compete where you belong. So if she is good enough to compete with the men, I think it's great and wish her all the best. It will only help women's skiing if she does well."
The chances of FIS actually granting permission are likely diminished given her results this weekend in Lake Louise. But she is not giving up the fight.
"I know I'm capable," Vonn said Sunday. "I always ski with a different mentality when I'm racing against the men. When I train with them, I don't think twice. I just literally go ballistic."
Back in 2014, Humphries broke the gender barrier in bobsleigh by piloting a four-man sled in World Cup competition along side American Elana Meyers Taylor.
"Lindsey Vonn has come back from injury," Humphries said. "She's had those downfalls. She's worked her way back.
"Regardless of the results, I hope they let her do it just to show the next generation that it's possible and to not have a ceiling — to not limit someone's abilities regardless of gender."