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Analysis

End of an era: Lindsey Vonn, Aksel Lund Svindal ski into the sunset

This weekend, Lindsey Vonn and Aksel Lund Svindal will burst out of the start gate and barrel down the mountain for the final time at the world championships in Are, Sweden. One is a star-spangled, American, superstar. The other has embraced the persona of an attacking Viking. Together they have changed the sport of alpine skiing forever.

Olympic alpine champions will retire after worlds, but their legacy will loom large

Lindsey Vonn, left, and Aksel Lund Svindal, shown in this 2012 file photo, will hang up their skis after the world championships in Are, Sweden this weekend, but their legacy in the sport will loom large for a long time to come. (File/Getty Images)

When it comes to ski racing, it's the end of an era.

This weekend, Lindsey Vonn and Aksel Lund Svindal will burst out of the start gate and barrel down the mountain for the final time at the world championships in Are, Sweden.

One is a star-spangled, American, superstar. The other has embraced the persona of an attacking Viking.

Together they have changed the sport of alpine skiing forever. They already claim status as living legends.

I started covering ski racing as both Vonn and Svindal came to prominence. Olympic champion Kerrin Lee-Gartner insisted I descend the icy downhill course at Lake Louise while on skis the very first weekend I was there in the early winter of 2004. She just wanted me to have an understanding of what I was getting into.

My fear almost overwhelmed me but somehow, through a combination of slip sliding and snowplowing, I crept my way to the bottom of the treacherous track without Kerrin feeling compelled to hold my hand. I could not possibly imagine racing the course at speeds in excess of 120 km/h as all the athletes, male and female, regularly do.

As it was I have never been more frightened in my life.

A few days later I watched as a teenager named Lindsey Kildow (later to become Vonn) won her first World Cup race on the same forbidding slope. You could tell she was going to be something special.

The fire within

It was the next season that the enormous presence of Svindal came into focus. I stood in the mixed zone at the finish line in the shadow of the Rockies and witnessed the mighty Norwegian storm to his first World Cup victory in the super-G.  Interviewing him was like speaking with a friendly giant. He was open, gracious, and just beginning to understand his power and potential.

"Aksel is the man. He's thoughtful and a true competitor," says Manny Osborne-Paradis a Canadian downhiller who raced against Svindal throughout his career. "The fire he has within is like no one else I've ever met. The purpose, grit, and mettle he shows while he trains and races inspired me. His mental tenacity blows me away."

The most prolific ski racer in Canadian history is two-time world champion Erik Guay. Although a fierce rival of Svindal's, he's quick to recognize what made the Norwegian ace the leader of the pack.

"Svindal is a legend in the ski racing industry. He has won everything possible and has been there for years and years," Guay says. "On top of his ability to win, he cares about his competitors, he cares about the sport, and he is very generous with his time.

"I think that makes him a great human being and not just a great champion."

In cases like this, when athletic figures who have become household names in any given sport call it a career, the default position is to rely on statistics which reveal how prolific they've been.

And although Vonn and Svindal are both Olympic champions and have collected between them, seven Olympic medals, seven world championship crowns, 31 crystal globes (or season titles), and a whopping 118 World Cup victories, the numbers fall short of truly reflecting their greatness.

It's the way they won that really mattered.

'Falling and rising again'

Both Svindal and Vonn endured horrific crashes and devastating injuries on numerous occasions.  But like undaunted gladiators they returned to the fray to flourish over and over again.

"They always came back and won," says four-time Olympian and CBC Sports analyst Brian Stemmle, who himself survived a life-threatening accident in the Hahnenkamm downhill at Kitzbuehel.

WATCH | Vonn crashes out in the 2nd-last race of her career:

CBC Sports' Signa Butler discusses and analyzes Lindsey Vonn's crash in the final super-G race of her career at the alpine skiing world championships in Are, Sweden. 1:30

"What makes them such compelling champions are the tall tales that go along with the medals and the trophies. An athlete's story of falling and rising again separates the legends from the greats. Simply put, they were both winners."

Retired racer Kelly VanderBeek now commentates on skiing for CBC.  She has shared the World Cup podium on more than one occasion with Vonn and remains an admirer and friend.

"Vonn brought a level of intensity to her training and racing unlike anything I've ever seen before or since.  She wanted to win – always – and she did the work to do just that, win," VanderBeek marvels.

"Lindsey has found a way to transcend sport, sex, and borders to be known worldwide. If that's not an X-factor I don't know what is."

Indeed, Vonn is not only the most decorated female racer in World Cup history, she also popularized the sport and her own personal brand to the point where she has become an international celebrity. Vonn wanted to race against the men and challenged convention when it came to the role of women in sport.

"Lindsey Vonn raised the bar in every way," reckons Olympic downhill champion and ski analyst Lee-Gartner, who has called every one of Vonn's landmark 18 World Cup wins in Canada and many more internationally.

"Her ski legacy may be her record number of victories but I believe her life legacy may be her work ethic combined with her social media presence which has helped to show young girls that they can do anything."

WATCH | Lindsey Vonn tells CBC Sports she'll be back in Canada:

American ski star Lindsey Vonn says she will compete one last time on Sunday despite her crash, won't let her career end in the nets. 1:10

Stemmle agrees with Lee-Gartner's assessment of Vonn's contribution to her sport. According to him, it goes well beyond the field of play and her legacy is bound to endure.

"Vonn has had a massive impact on bringing ski racing to mainstream media," he suggests. "Somewhat arrogant and unlikeable at the beginning of her career, she has matured immensely and has dominated. She has become a role model for young girls and women."

In the end, when both Vonn and Svindal cross the finish line for the last time, it won't be the final race result which is remembered. Win or lose ,there will be something timeless revealed in their ultimate trip down the hill.

"Vonn and Svindal have broken records, made history and changed the sport for the better," Lee-Gartner concludes. "Like any great champions they will be missed on race day but their mark on the sport is everlasting."

All of which makes Lindsey Vonn and Aksel Lund Svindal alpine giants for the ages. And we may not see the likes of them for generations to come.

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