Lindsey Vonn with teammate Ted Ligety at the World Cup Finals in March, 2010.
Photo by Doug Haney, courtesy the U.S. Ski Team.
Leaving a job is seldom easy. For Olympic gold medalist skier Lindsey Vonn, I imagine the decision was a harder one than most.
In a clearly heartfelt Facebook post, Vonn announced on Feb. 1 that her scheduled participation in the World Championships in Are, Sweden would mark the end of her career as a professional athlete. “The unfortunate reality is my mind and body are not on the same page,” Vonn wrote. This disconnect was borne out shortly after, when Vonn crashed out of her penultimate World Championship run, colliding nastily with a fence.
Vonn, who got up under her own power shortly after the crash, said, “It’s just time to be done. It’s like my body is not doing what my mind is telling it to do anymore.”
The decision to listen to her body was a long time coming. Vonn wrote on Facebook that she had dealt with more injuries and surgeries than she had publicly admitted over the past few years, including surgery last year to remove cartilage from one of her knees. Vonn had hoped to race long enough to break the record for World Cup wins; she has 82, only four shy of Ingemar Stenmark’s record and more than any other woman in history. But ultimately, the physical realities of her punishing sport took the choice to retire out of her hands.
I am nowhere near a professional athlete, but I can sympathize with the desire to push through and the ultimate necessity of listening to what your body is telling you. My interest in watching skiing comes from my own past on the slopes. I started skiing in the mid-1990s, before I switched to snowboarding, and when I was younger I had a season pass at the Killington Ski Resort in Vermont. As someone who has just turned 40 – six years older than Vonn – I expect that trips these days will involve more aches and pains than they used to.
The last time I went snowboarding for a weekend, however, I was in mild but nagging pain most of the week leading up to the trip. I resolved to push through, but I spent that Saturday on the mountain wondering why I found turning so hard, and why I couldn’t handle the advanced black diamond trails I normally favored. At first, I chalked it up to the aging process. But when I felt much worse on Monday morning, I decided to go to the doctor, where I was promptly diagnosed with appendicitis. Financial planners, like professional athletes, need to listen to their bodies when they’re sending signals to stop.
Though I left skiing for snowboarding early, I remained enthusiastic about the sport. I watch a lot of televised Olympic coverage, which means I’ve had a chance to see Vonn race many times in the nearly 20 years she has skied professionally. To say her career has been remarkable is a significant understatement. In addition to her 82 World Cup wins, she has earned three Olympic medals and seven World Championship medals. She has come back from injuries including a broken ankle, a severed tendon in her hand and a shattered humerus, any of which could have been career-ending.
As Wayne Drehs wrote for ESPN, “[Vonn’s] legacy, ultimately, will be as one of the most successful, resilient athletes in American sports history.” Before last season, Chris Knight, one of Vonn’s coaches, estimated that she was operating at 50 or 60 percent of her former peak performance; Knight noted, “And that still puts her as the top two or three ski racers in the world.”
Given how recently Vonn announced her retirement, it is far too soon to say for sure what she will do next. Professional athletes often face an unusual career arc, in which they earn the majority of their lifetime income very early on. After all, “Financial Independence, Retire Early” devotees aside, few people are thinking about retiring in their mid-30s.
Athletes like Vonn can decide to make a plan in order to live off their initial earnings, if they wish. Making front-loaded earnings last is not simple, but it is far from impossible if approached prudently. Should Vonn wish to devote most of her days to letting her body heal, spending quality time with loved ones or volunteering for causes that matter to her, it is reasonable to structure her finances accordingly. Vonn previously established a foundation to support young female skiers and has used her social media presence to push for stronger gender parity in a sport that has long been dominated by men; it is possible she might want to devote a larger portion of her time to this cause or others going forward.
I think it is likely, though, that Vonn will follow the path of many other retired athletes and pursue some form of second-act career, whether for financial reasons, personal interest or a combination of the two. Vonn has long been noted for her charisma, attracting numerous corporate sponsorships and commercial endorsements during her skiing career. She is a strong contender for a position in sports broadcasting or commentating if she has interest in such a position. And fans like me would be happy to continue to see Vonn connected to the sport, even if she is no longer on the slopes.
Whatever Lindsey Vonn decides to do next, her career represented a new high-water mark in skiing and paved the way for new talent like Mikaela Shiffrin to set even higher goals in the future. While Vonn may be disappointed to have missed her very last target, she still left her mark as one of the most successful and resilient athletes of our time.