Shattered knees be damned, Lindsey Vonn left on her terms.
Upright and on the podium.
So many snapshots of Vonn’s career are of her battered and broken, scary crashes that robbed her of the chance for even more Olympic medals and more World Cup victories. Even this week, a crash in the Super-G left her with a black eye and a bruised rib.
Yet it will be this final image of Vonn that resonates: Hands raised in triumph, a smile spread wide across her face, another medal around her neck.
Forced to bring a sooner-than-expected end to her career, Vonn pushed aside the pain for one last, great run, winning the bronze medal in the downhill at the world championships Sunday.
Injuries might have dictated the when of her retirement, but she decided the how.
“I’m going to put this next to the gold medals,” Vonn told NBC after the race in Are, Sweden. “This, to me, was, an incredible race. I fought with my heart the whole way down.”
And that, even more than the records, is what defines Vonn.
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She’ll be remembered as one of the greatest ski racers ever, male or female. Her 82 World Cup victories are second only to the 86 of Ingemar Stenmark, who was there to greet her in the finish area. She is an Olympic champion, having won gold in the downhill at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
Her eight downhill titles are a record, and her four overall titles are most by an American.
But it is Vonn’s grit and perseverance that made her iconic.
There is not a part of her body that’s been left unscathed, her catalog of injuries including concussions, nerve damage, broken bones in her arm, ankle and leg, and, of course, her shredded knees. Yet time and again, Vonn got back up, the strength of her determination and will unmatched.
Vonn had hoped to continue skiing through December so she could end her career at her beloved Lake Louise. But the 34-year-old announced earlier this month that a crash in November had left her with more torn knee ligaments.
“My body is broken beyond repair and it isn’t letting me have the final season I dreamed of,” she wrote Feb. 1 on Instagram, announcing that the Super-G and downhill at the world championships would be her final races. “My body is screaming at me to STOP and it’s time for me to listen.”
After crashing in the Super-G, no one would have blamed Vonn had she made her start in the downhill a ceremonial one. Taken one last, leisurely glide down the mountain.
But Vonn has never done anything halfway, and she wasn’t about to start now.
“Guns ablaze,” Vonn said in an interview before the race. “All the way to the finish.”
True to her word, she recovered from a slow start and attacked the second half of the course. She flew across the finish line in first place, then waited to see if her time would hold up.
Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec, the reigning world champion, pushed Vonn into second place. Switzerland’s Corinne Suter would bump her to third. But with the sun dipping behind clouds and casting shadows across the course, no one else would challenge her.
Vonn’s spot on the podium was secure. She had defied the ravages of her injuries one last time.
“It’s been an amazing career, and to end on this note … means everything to me,” Vonn said.
“I’ve accepted where I am in my life,” she added. “I’m happy and I’m excited for the future. I’ve cried enough tears and now it’s just time to enjoy it.”
Lindsey Vonn might not have won every race in her career. But she never let herself be beaten, right up until the very end.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.