Lindsey Vonn looks back at brutal season and ahead to Olympic gold

AP Photo/Marco Trovati

This story appears in the April 10 issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

With 77 World Cup wins, Lindsey Vonn, 32, is the greatest female Alpine skier of all time. Now, after one of the toughest seasons of her career, she's prepping for what is likely her last Olympics, the Pyeongchang Games in February 2018. On Nov. 10, Vonn crashed during training and broke her right arm so badly that bone fragments damaged her radial nerve and she lost function in her hand. After surgery and therapy, she returned to the World Cup in January but won only once, leaving her nine wins shy of the men's career record holder, Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark. Here, Vonn opens up about her injury, her return and her final Olympic push.

THE MAG: You've had a series of injuries since 2013 but called your recovery from nerve damage the hardest of your career. Why has it been so tough?

LINDSEY VONN: It's been the most mentally draining. I can't do therapy on race days because I worry I'll get too mentally tired to focus. It was the first time I had an injury that could affect my entire life. The physical stuff like building strength back, that's somehow easier than not being able to do my hair or brush my teeth or put a spoon to my mouth. It was frustrating to not be able to write my name.

THE MAG: What was the first breakthrough in your recovery?

LV: When I started being able to give a thumbs-up. That was a big day. When I could do my makeup without making a clown face. That was also a big day. Doing makeup with your left hand is hard. I practice spelling the alphabet every day. I sign my name 20 times. Every day, it gets a little better.

THE MAG: What was it like to have a fan ask for your autograph and have to say no?

LV: It was hard to explain. I didn't really tell people what was going on for a long time because I was embarrassed. So it was hard to say, "I'm sorry, I can't sign this autograph because I physically can't."

THE MAG: You missed the first half of this season but came back in January. Why did you return so fast?

LV: I honestly thought I could be in contention for downhill and super-G titles. But it was harder than I expected to go in cold turkey without any training. It showed in my racing and in my confidence. Despite all my injuries, I've never come into a season unprepared, and I felt really unprepared this year.

THE MAG: How will you approach this offseason?

LV: I have to come into next season healthy, have good on-snow training and good physical training, and get my confidence at a really high point. It's a matter of finding a balance between training enough and limiting my risk. I want to make sure everything is high quality, low volume. I'll focus on being fit and minimizing the impact on my knees, getting my hand better and my triceps stronger.

THE MAG: How does the injury affect your skiing?

LV: In the start, I'm not strong in my right arm. So I'm at a disadvantage, and I have to make up that time by skiing better, which pushes the limit even more and puts me at more risk. I don't have much feeling in my hand. I lost my pole in the world championships for about nine gates. I was trying to get it back in my hand and I wasn't focused on the course. I tried to make up time and missed a gate.

THE MAG: How have you adapted?

LV: Since the world championships, my physio, Patrick, duct-tapes my hand to my pole. I have to get in my skis early because once my pole is taped to my hand, I can't do anything. My technician and my physio pull my suit down over my boot buckles.

THE MAG: If you could relive your career, but without the injuries, how different a person would you be today?

LV: I wouldn't appreciate anything. I'm a much happier person because of the injuries. If I didn't have those setbacks, it would be too easy. Everyone needs an obstacle to overcome to show yourself what you are capable of.

THE MAG: The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, are less than a year away. What are your goals for next season?

LV: I'm looking at the Olympics as my main goal. In the long run, the World Cup wins record means the most to me. But after the Olympics, I'll have the chance to keep skiing for maybe a year, maybe two. But this is probably my last Olympics. I'll be pretty dang old in Beijing [in 2022].

THE MAG: Why does Stenmark's record mean so much?

LV: Ingemar is the legend of ski racing, and no one has been close to breaking his record. I would like to be the first person to do that. Some people tell me I shouldn't think about it, that I should just focus on my skiing. But those are the types of things that motivate me.

THE MAG: What would it mean to the sport for a woman to hold the record?

LV: It would mean a lot, and not just in ski racing but for women in sports. It's groundbreaking. It makes the ceiling higher, and hopefully the next person behind me can do more. We want to keep pushing each other, not hold each other down.

THE MAG: What specific goals have you set for yourself in South Korea?

LV: I hope I can get a gold in the downhill again. I'm not going to say I will be disappointed if I don't, because I will be happy with any color. But the ultimate goal is to win.

THE MAG: Pyeongchang will be your fourth Olympics. How is your motivation different this time around?

LV: This is the last stretch of my career, and I want to make it count. I don't want to be one of those people who fades away. Just because I'm old doesn't mean I'm not capable. I feel like a lot of people underestimate me right now because they think I'm old and they think I'm not going to be a threat. But I wasn't a threat this year because I was injured, not because I can't do it.