LOS ANGELES — About 100 days after her 17th birthday, Lindsey Kildow charged out of the gate in her first race at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics to a startling top 10 finish.
At the time, the U.S. women’s ski team was in disarray. Its only star, Olympic champion Picabo Street, was retiring, and the racers who were expected to ascend in her wake were instead wilting under the pressure of the games.
Kildow, five years before the marriage that would change her name to Lindsey Vonn, was not well known in top racing circles, until she earned sixth place in that race, the only top 10 finish by an American woman at those games.
The teenager was suddenly seen as a savior.
After that first Olympic race, a reporter asked if she was awed to be competing on her sport’s biggest stage at such a young age. She recalled a grade school assignment to write about a life goal.
“I wrote, ‘To make it to the Olympics and win more ski races than any woman ever has,’” she said, adding with a wide smile, “But I later changed that to say that I wanted to make it to a bunch of Olympics.”
Close to 16 years and multiple Olympics later, as Vonn, now 33, sat in a Los Angeles studio awaiting yet another major media photo shoot, the 2002 scene was recounted to her. She snickered.
“Just thinking big, man,” she said. “Though I’m not sure I saw all the Olympic twists and turns to come. At 17, some things you can’t possibly imagine happening.”
Vonn’s Olympic odyssey has since been relentlessly eventful, a journey that has zigzagged from surprising to harrowing to inspirational to triumphant to devastating.
But as Vonn turns toward her fourth Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, nothing is more important than this, her last Olympic chapter. She will be among the favorites in the downhill and super-G and a medal contender in the Alpine combined.
“It’s all that matters right now,” she said late last year. “I came into the spotlight at the Olympics. I won a gold medal at the 2010 Olympics that changed my life. It all helps establish a legacy, and now, here’s one more shot.
“That’s what the Olympics can do.”
But the Olympics for Vonn have also sometimes been a quadrennial punch in the gut, too.
She must also confront that fact in South Korea. As much as the Olympics represent some of her happiest times, they also cue some of her most dreaded memories.
Four years after her breakout performance at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, for example, she was expected to win multiple medals at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. During training days before the opening ceremony, Vonn crashed while racing down a mountain at 60 mph, somersaulting until she flew off a jump backward and landed with a chilling thud. She lay on her back in the snow, motionless except for her gasps.
“In the helicopter, the doctors thought I broke my back,” Vonn said, “And I thought: OK, my career is over.”
But Vonn was only severely bruised. Limping badly and using ski poles as de facto canes, she eventually left the hospital to compete in four events, but her best finish was seventh.
“I was in extreme pain, but it was a good lesson,” she recalled, reclining in the sun of a Los Angeles plaza just before Thanksgiving. “With ski racing, it can all end in less than a second. When I accepted that, I knew I didn’t have time to squander one day of training anymore, even in the offseason. I had to push myself year-round to maximize every single race opportunity.”
Not long after, she married Thomas Vonn, a U.S. ski team Olympian known as a meticulous technician.
Thomas became her manager, gear guru and part-time coach, and together the couple developed a work ethic for Vonn that was unmatched by her peers on and off the snow.
On race days, she adopted a steely resolve that complemented her inherent aggressiveness. In the next five seasons, Vonn was the most dominant racer in the sport, tying the record for most women’s World Cup overall titles (four) and for most seasonlong event championships (16) by any skier, man or woman.
With a stirring, white-knuckle performance at the 2010 Vancouver Games, she became the first American to win the women’s downhill.
She separated from Thomas Vonn in late 2011, and 15 months of messy divorce negotiations ensued.
Vonn’s skiing remained unrivaled, and she won her fourth overall title in 2012. But as the divorce was being completed in January 2013, she seemed distracted. She missed several races with an illness, then took a monthlong break from the World Cup.
In her first race at the 2013 world championships a month later, one year and one day from the start of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, she stumbled as she landed a lengthy jump and vaulted over the tips of her skis, rupturing the cruciate ligament in her right knee. She returned to the slopes after nine months to practice.
Then, one morning in training, she fell at high speed and once again tore the same ligament in her right knee. She tried desperately to qualify for the Olympics, anyway, before finally bowing out a month before the Sochi Games.
“Those injuries changed the trajectory of my career — changed it forever, basically,” Vonn said last year, subconsciously, or consciously, rubbing her right knee as she spoke. “Just devastating. A very dark moment in my career.”
She sequestered herself at home in Vail, Colorado, recovering from a second reconstructive knee surgery. She had also begun dating golfer Tiger Woods, and going outside became more problematic because she attracted paparazzi looking for Woods.
At first it was too dispiriting to watch the Olympics on television, but she decided to force herself to tune in.
“I wanted it to fuel me for the next four years, even if it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “You watch. You grow stronger. You plan your return.”
The intervening years have been most notable for Vonn’s continued march toward an achievement she set as a goal when she was 7.
Vonn now has 81 World Cup victories, which is 13 more than any other woman in history. She is five wins from catching Ingemar Stenmark, who holds the men’s record of 86 World Cup victories.
Off the slopes, she was able to keep a lower profile after she and Woods announced they had split in May 2015.
Vonn’s daring, uncompromising racing style, however, which has led to so much of her success, continued to imperil her. In November 2016, on the same Colorado training hill where her 2014 Olympic dreams were derailed, she bounced through a hole in the racecourse and tumbled to the snow.
This time, the humerus bone in Vonn’s upper right arm was gruesomely splintered.
“That was an injury that scared me more than any other because for a long time I couldn’t feel my arm,” Vonn said. “I was terrified it would be permanent.”
The catalog of ski racing injuries that Vonn has sustained and endured in the past two decades is so vast, she struggles to recall them all. They include a broken ankle, multiple hairline fractures of her knee, a badly cut thumb, broken fingers, a concussion, torn knee ligaments and a back and hip so badly bruised that her torso was discolored from her shoulder blade to her knee.
“But waiting for the nerve damage from my broken arm to go away was the worst,” Vonn said. “I remember I had to practice writing the alphabet every day to try to regain the use of my hand.”
It did not, however, keep her out of a racing start gate.
“We used duct tape to attach my pole to my right hand, which was a little bit dangerous, but everything is dangerous for me and it worked,” Vonn said with a laugh.
She returned to the World Cup circuit in 2017 and won the second race she entered.
But the cavalcade of increasingly serious injuries has changed Vonn’s outlook this winter. Staying healthy enough to make it to Pyeongchang became an overriding priority that guided every decision she made in the past 12 months.
While her racing colleagues spent months training last summer in New Zealand and Chile, Vonn reduced her time in the Southern Hemisphere by 50 percent to minimize the risk of a fall in what are often unpredictable snow conditions.
Even at home this winter in Colorado, if the snow surface for training was sketchy or irregular, Vonn stayed off skis. In December, when fog reduced the visibility before a World Cup race in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Vonn, who had jarred a back vertebra in a recent race, decided not to compete.
Famous for a grueling on-snow training schedule, Vonn scaled back her time slamming through gates, which is always a perilous routine. She did not, however, scale back on her almost daily five-hour strength and conditioning workouts in the gym.
“I’ve avoided some races and done some things I never would have done in the past,” Vonn said. “But that’s because the entire focus has been on being ready for the Olympics.”
If she has been more out of sight in the greater ski racing community, she is not out of mind.
“Maybe some girls have forgotten how great Vonn is, but I haven’t,” said Sofia Goggia of Italy, Vonn’s biggest rival in the Olympic downhill this month. “She has always been one of my heroes. None of us have done what she has done. Who has?”
Vonn’s American teammate Mikaela Shiffrin said, “When you’re as good as Lindsey has been, you don’t forget how to go fast.”
Vonn expects to retire after the 2019 ski season.
She has talked in the past about wanting to have a family when she stopped racing, but late last year, when asked if children were still in her plans, she put up her right hand like a cop stopping traffic.
“Slow down there,” she said with a hearty laugh.
When she was 17, Lindsey Kildow sociably giggled, raced with her hair flapping behind her in a long ponytail tied with sparkling ribbons, and passionately talked about her racing future as if it would be endless.
Lindsey Vonn, much closer to her career’s end than its start, still prides herself on being amiable, but she unquestionably tends to be more cautious and watchful. Her ski racing wardrobe is chosen by her many high-powered sponsors. When she talks about what is next in her career, she is wary not to project too far.
“I’m not old, but I’m definitely older,” she said, wrinkling her brow. “Maybe the thing I’m most afraid of is running out of time before I reach everything I set out to accomplish.
“Although, not to sound arrogant, I’ve already done almost everything I ever set out to do.”
But there will be one more Olympics.
“I don’t need to win in Pyeongchang,” Vonn said, “but I would love to win in Pyeongchang.
“So that’s the thing. I don’t need it, but I want it.”