The most overused word in sports is “star.” It should be reserved only for the deserving few, those who constantly brighten our horizons with their exploits, who don’t wax, wane and flame out in a season or two and, most importantly, who don’t cheat, dope, act like idiots and otherwise prove that sports are too quick to build pedestals for athletes.
Lindsey Vonn is a bona fide star.
In simple numerical terms, it’s hard to gauge the relative value of the American’s new record in Alpine skiing. Vonn’s 63rd win in World Cup ski racing, in Italy on Monday, moved her ahead of Annemarie Moser-Proell, the women’s previous record-holder from Austria with 62 World Cup victories from 1970-1980.
But with fewer races back then, Moser-Proell had fewer opportunities than Vonn to make her mark and she won more frequently and from a younger age than Vonn.
The technology of skiing has changed, too. Perhaps not as drastically as in tennis, where Rod Laver’s wooden rackets frustrate comparisons with Roger Federer. In winning gold at the 1980 Olympics, Moser-Proell sped downhill as fast as Vonn did 30 years later for her gold in Vancouver in 2010.
Still, how would Vonn and Moser-Proell have fared against each other with the same boots and skis? The differing eras make that impossible to answer with certainty.
Fairer to both, then, not to play one off against the other. It’s how and why Vonn has reached this milestone, not the record alone or eclipsing Moser-Proell, which make her special.
TALENT’S NOT ENOUGH: Vonn’s brain is missing the alarm bells that tell the rest of us to slow down or she has learned to ignore them. Speed simply doesn’t scare her. “That’s why I have so many speeding tickets in my car,” she has said. For her, an icy corner on a precipitous mountain slope is an opportunity to go quicker than others who apply the brakes. Not crashing occasionally, she figures, must mean that she isn’t pushing hard enough. “I’m just not afraid.”
But she also was smart in realizing long ago, early in her career, that natural hard-wiring for speed wouldn’t alone be sufficient. She became the dominant woman skier not simply by being quick but by training and working hard enough to exploit that talent.
NOT A QUITTER: There were plenty of points along the way when Vonn could have said, “enough.” At 16, after failing to finish most of her races. At 21, when a back-crunching, cart-wheeling crash in training at the Turin Olympics made her realize, for the first time, “that at any second I could be done, not just in skiing, but in life.” In 2013, when she tore two right-knee ligaments, the ACL and MCL, that keep our thighbones attached to our shinbones. Or again in November that year, when she re-tore one of those ligaments that had been rebuilt with a graft from her hamstring, eventually forcing her out of the 2014 Sochi Olympics and back into surgery.
Pain is as much a part of competitive skiing as snow. What is astounding about Vonn isn’t her high tolerance for it but that she’s winning again so soon after sweating her way back to health — not once but twice — from surgeries that emaciated her leg muscles. Only in September did her surgeon clear her to ski again. World Cup wins 60, 61, 62 and 63 have come in eight races since December. She has scars on her knee but her confidence and fearlessness seem remarkably intact.
“I’m not dead; I’m still here,” Vonn says in a forthcoming TV documentary about her recovery. One day, that would make a fitting headstone.
OFF-PISTE PERSONA: Given that they have people who manage their public personas, who tweet and post for them, and otherwise make them sound and look good, it’s silly to assume that the athlete on your cereal box is a model citizen in private, too. Michael Phelps’ drunken driving, the revelation in 2009 of Tiger Woods’ serial adultery or Lance Armstrong’s doping — to name just those three — showed how success in sports is sometimes only half the story.
Vonn does the public side extremely well. All sports could do with more women like her, to balance out and end the undeserved dominance of men. She is articulate about skiing, making the sport easier to understand and so more attractive. She seems to understand and deal graciously with media curiosity about her personal relationship with Woods, helping rehabilitate his image somewhat. “He’s a catch. He’s a good boyfriend,” Vonn said on the “Today” show after Woods sprang the surprise of turning up for her 63rd victory.
“For the most part, she’s been remarkably scandal-free for her career,” six-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller said this month of Vonn. “She does the right stuff all the time. She’s a very clean-cut American superstar and that’s an amazing title.”
A true star.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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