Lindsey Vonn's legacy of toughness has been cemented for many years now. Back in 2006, after she had to be airlifted to a hospital following a harrowing crash on a training run at the Torino Games, she got up out of her hospital bed and tried to leave without a discharge notice.
She skied in those Games two days later, to the astonishment of much of the watching world, and won the U.S. Olympic Spirit Award.
"Not racing wasn't an option," she said after her brave race, in which she finished eighth. "I was gonna go through everything I could today to start and I really wasn't thinking about not racing at all. I just learned that your body can go through a lot. And that you can push yourself as far as you want to push it."
Those words now carry a more poignant meaning, as Vonn has decided to pull out of the Sochi Games because of a right knee injury she couldn't rehabilitate in time for next month's competition. Vonn crashed in the Super G at the World Championships last year, was airlifted to another hospital, and learned she tore two ligaments in her right knee. She also suffered a tibial fracture. She came back to compete, crashed again in November, came back yet another time, and then skied off a course in France after the knee buckled.
The fact that the news of her withdrawal from the Games comes after all that shows again what Vonn is made of. She had to be restrained from leaving the hospital back in Torino, and we can only imagine how much effort she showed over the last several months as she tried to do something even more improbable: ski at the highest level without an ACL.
"I am devastated to announce that I will not be able to compete in Sochi," Vonn said in a statement Tuesday. "I did everything I possibly could to somehow get strong enough to overcome having no ACL but the reality has sunk in that my knee is just too unstable to compete at this level."
As with any skier, a severe knee injury brings the risk of the end of an Olympic career. Vonn will turn 30 in October, and although she's certainly determined enough to try for 2018, there's a chance her last turn as the face of the Games has passed. If so, it's hard to decide whether she'll be remembered more for her Olympic triumphs or her Olympic will. Even in 2010, she began her Vancouver Games by announcing she had a severe shin injury. Seven days later, she won gold in the downhill – becoming the first American woman to do so. She crashed in two other races and finished third in the Super G. She is the most successful skier in American history, and yet we'll never know how well she would have done over the last decade if she were completely healthy. That's often the case with skiers, but even more so with Vonn. It was hard to tell how close she was to 100 percent, and how much pain she was hiding. That uncertainty, especially now, is both a cause for disappointment and a cause for admiration. So too is Tuesday's decision. She mentioned in her statement that the silver lining was an additional spot so a U.S. teammate could go for gold.
Back in 2006, when she was still Lindsey Kildow, one of the iconic images of the Games was not the sight of her crashing or skiing, but of her at the bottom of the hill after finishing eighth. She propped herself on her ski poles, grimacing in pain, and forced herself off the mountain without any help. It was the Olympic creed embodied: "The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."
Vonn has done both.