CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy — With 82 wins and counting, Lindsey Vonn still looks very much like the most successful women’s ski racer ever.
At least she does when she is whizzing down the mountain at speeds in excess of 75 miles per hour.
It’s after Vonn steps out of the spotlight and peels off her racing suit that she reveals the baggage she carries from her long list of crashes and injuries to virtually her whole body.
For the second time in her career, Vonn is racing with braces on both knees.
“It’s a little weird; sometimes, they click together,” the 34-year-old Vonn said Friday. “It’s definitely not aerodynamic, that’s for sure. But it’s better than not racing. Do what I got to do.
“There are other racers that have knee braces,” she added. “But the double whammy is not ideal.”
Having hyperextended her left knee and sprained a ligament while training in November, Vonn returned to the World Cup circuit on Friday. She finished tied for 15th in the downhill, making an uncharacteristic mistake midway through her run.
Vonn, who finished 1.19 seconds behind the winner, Ramona Siebenhofer, was bounced off her line on the upper portion of the sun-drenched Olympia delle Tofane course.
“It was just good to get one under my belt,” Vonn said. “While I expect a lot from myself, sometimes I need to be realistic and understand that I haven’t skied downhill since November. I can’t expect everything all the time, and today is just a good place to start and I’ll fix things for tomorrow and ski the course the way I know how.”
Vonn needs five more wins to break the career record of 86 held by the Swedish standout Ingemar Stenmark before she retires after races in Lake Louise, Alberta, in December.
As if the pressure of chasing the record and her physical condition weren’t enough, Vonn also had to deal with a fan heckling her after her run.
Among other things, the heckler told Vonn that her American teammate Mikaela Shiffrin would break her records. That prompted Vonn, who appeared amused, to shout back at the fan.
“It was really weird,” Vonn said. “Maybe it was lost in translation, but it was right after my run when I’m not exactly excited. It was probably not the best time to chirp me. But it’s all right. I got plenty of other fans here.”
Siebenhofer claimed her first career victory with a near-perfect run, finishing 0.40 seconds ahead of the world champion Ilka Stuhec of Slovenia. Stephanie Venier, the silver medalist at the 2017 worlds and Siebenhofer’s roommate on the Austrian team, was third, 0.46 behind.
Vonn’s right knee is permanently damaged from previous crashes. She has also torn ACLs, sustained fractures near her left knee, broken her ankle, sliced her right thumb and had a concussion, among other things. Her er aching body cannot handle the workload of other skiers, so she is limited to about three runs a day.
No wonder she wears an airbag safety vest under her suit.
“It’s gone off quite a few times when I’ve crashed,” Vonn said. “As much as I can do to protect my body. I wear two knee braces and an airbag and maybe I should just ski in Bubble Wrap. I’ve got a mouth guard. I’ve got a helmet, airbag, back protector, knee braces. I think that’s as much as really you can have, besides arm braces at this point.”
Even with all that hardware, Vonn still feels pain in her knees when she lands long jumps. So she was pleased when organizers shortened the course because of overnight snowfall and eliminated the opening jump.
So how did the knees feel?
“Actually good. Better than yesterday. Yesterday did not feel good,” said Vonn, who took part in only one of the two training sessions Thursday and was walking gingerly afterward. “It will be good for me to have a better prep tonight and be a little bit more prepared tomorrow.”
Vonn, who has a record 12 wins in Cortina, expects to improve in another downhill scheduled for Saturday, followed by a super-G on Sunday.
“I’m going to change my underwear and change my race suit,” Vonn said. “And maybe that will make me a little faster, too.”