Lindsey Vonn's Tough Journey Back to the Olympics Adding to Her Family Legacy

Joon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterFebruary 16, 2018

PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 09:  United States alpine skier Lindsey Vonn attends her press conference at the Main Press Centre during previews ahead of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 9, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.  (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)
Ker Robertson/Getty Images

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Two Novembers ago, Lindsey Vonn struggled to wiggle her fingers. A fractured right humerus in her arm zapped her of all feeling. When Vonn's fitness coach, Alex Bunt, came to see her, he couldn't believe what he saw.

Vonn, a world-champion athlete and one of the most decorated winter Olympians ever, was unable to pick up coins or a pencil.

She suffered the injury while training at Copper Mountain, just another setback to add to the ever-growing pile. Three years earlier, she tore her right ACL. A re-injury to that knee a few weeks later kept her out of the 2014 Olympic games in Sochi, Russia. She missed much of the 2013 season with an intestinal infection.

She spent three years in total rehabbing: most of 2013, most of 2014, part of 2015 and part of 2016.

Vonn, so aware of of another setback, is wearing a facemask around the facilities, hoping she won't catch the highly contagious norovirus that has made the rounds in Pyeongchang.

"I'm in the high-traffic zones like the media center. I don't know which of you are sick and I'm just being safe," she said. "I wore them on the plane over here as well. I did that at Vancouver. I wore a mask, but I figured that for a press conference, a mask wasn't appropriate."

Through all of the injuries, all of the setbacks, all of the aches and pains, Vonn never doubted she would be back. A few weeks before she was set to make her Olympic return, Vonn won two World Cup downhill races in Germany. That's the latest indication she's roaring and ready to compete for a medal in Pyeongchang, where she's in contention for her three events: downhill, super-G and combined.

At 33 years old, this is likely Vonn's last Olympic Games. Given that she hasn't competed on the biggest of international stages for eight years, nothing was going to stop her from getting back.

GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 04: Lindsey Vonn of USA competes during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Downhill on February 4, 2018 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. (Photo by Hans Bezard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
Hans Bezard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

"I really want to put an exclamation point on my career," Vonn said. "It took me until my third Olympics to figure out how to deal with the pressure. Most of the time, especially in my second Olympics in Torino, I put more pressure on myself than anyone put on me."

Both Bunt and Vonn's head coach, Chris Knight, never doubted for a second that she would make it to Pyeongchang, health-dependent. They've seen the type of attitude she brings to the mountains, everything that she's been through to get to this point. But Vonn faces an even bigger task, greater than herself, at these Olympic games.

She's skiing for her grandfather, Don Kildow, who's one of the major reasons she turned into an Olympic legend.

"Her toughness," Hunt said, "comes from her family, and her grandfather."

Vonn was the oldest grandchild of Kildow, a Korean War veteran who died on Nov. 1. He was the one who founded the local ski club and introduced the sport to his family. When Kildow was 16, his father passed away.

At the time, the family was in the midst of building a house themselves, so they lived in a garage. As the family mourned Kildow's father, he finished constructing the house on his own, taking care of his mother and his siblings, all the while going to school and playing sports in Milton, Wisconsin. Kildow spent his entire life working in construction, instilling his work ethic in Lindsey and the rest of his family.

Vonn thought 2018 would be the year her grandfather would return to the country he once defended in war. He would watch his granddaughter finish her career and leave behind a legacy as one of the greatest skiers ever, male or female. Vonn tears up every time he's mentioned.

"I just want so badly to do well for him. I miss him so much," she said. "He's been such a big part of my life. I really hoped that he would be alive to see me, but I know he's watching, and I know that he's going to help me and I'm going to win for him."

She wouldn't be in a position to win for him without the toughness she learned under his watch. Vonn's coaches seem perplexed at times about how she's managed to get through all of itthe personal loss, the injuries, the paparazzi-level fame.

"I originally came from New Zealand, and I've watched a lot of rugby in my life, and I'm also an ice hockey fan. You see hits and tackles and the rest of it, and then you see Lindsey take a crash, and she gets up and comes back the next day," Knight said. "Then just being able to start off again, at exactly the same place that she left off before she got hurt, that's just incredible toughness to be able to do that."

As Vonn embarks on her final quest for gold, her future remains in question. She wants to ski one more season to pursue Ingemar Stenmark's record 86 World Cup victories. The accolades or fame aren't what she's focused on as she gears up for what's likely to be her last run at the Olympics, though.

"It's not really about me or my career," Vonn said. "It's about my grandfather."

Without all of that time with Kildow, Vonn doesn't know whether she'd have been here in the first place.

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