A passing of the torch moment. A generational transformation marked by a veteran’s tears and the unbridled joy of youth.
Call it what you want, it seemed like destiny played a role when Mikaela Shiffrin won what could very well turn out to be Lindsey Vonn’s last race.
In the space of about a half hour on Sunday, Vonn broke down emotionally after she failed to finish a World Cup super-G on knees so worn down that she describes them as “bone on bone,” then Shiffrin came down nine racers later and won her first speed race at the premier stop on the women’s circuit.
Shortly after the normally reserved Shiffrin unleashed an unusual hands-over-her-head celebration, Vonn announced that she was considering moving up her retirement.
“As a fan of ski racing and as an American, if Lindsey’s not there it’s awesome to see another American girl on top,” said retired U.S. racer Daron Rahlves, who was in attendance. “But I know it’s burning inside for Lindsey.”
After collecting herself, the 34-year-old Vonn went over and embraced the 23-year-old Shiffrin, who was standing in the leader’s box.
“I just told her, ‘Congratulations and awesome skiing. It was a well-earned victory today,'” Vonn said.
Not too long ago, it was a moment that Shiffrin could only have dreamed of.
“When I was younger she was someone I looked up to like crazy,” Shiffrin said. “I was doing book reports on her. I was one of those fans.”
Lately, Shiffrin has had a front-row seat to observe Vonn’s perseverance.
At Shiffrin’s first world championships in Schladming, Austria, she watched as Vonn tumbled head first into one of the ugliest and most damaging crashes of her career — the one that eventually kept Vonn out of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Shiffrin, by then an Olympic champion like her idol, was also there when Vonn, 33 at the time, won a bronze in the downhill at last year’s Pyeongchang Games, becoming the oldest female medalist in Olympic history for Alpine skiing.
“The speed that she has is just in her — more speed than everyone else — it lives in her bones,” Shiffrin said. “Managing that with the injuries that she’s had and the mentality she always has to push 1,000 percent … I’ve always been watching that.”
While Vonn returned this weekend from a left knee injury — she hyperextended it and sprained a ligament in November — her right knee is permanently damaged from previous crashes . She has also suffered fractures near her left knee, broken her ankle, sliced her right thumb, had a concussion and more.
Vonn was planning on retiring in December but her results this past weekend — her best finish in three races was ninth — prompted her to consider leaving the sport earlier.
“There’s only so much I can handle and I might have reached my maximum,” Vonn said Sunday.
U.S. team spokeswoman Megan Harrod said Monday that Vonn “is going to take the next couple/few days to think about how she will proceed and process everything, and then decide about how she will move forward based on that.”
Vonn has 82 World Cup victories — best all-time among women — and four fewer than record-holder Ingemar Stenmark, who raced in the 1970s and 80s.
“She took Alpine racing to the next level,” said Tina Weirather, the Liechtenstein racer who is the daughter of two skiing champions and who finished second Sunday. “Her mentality was something we had never seen before. She was never afraid to say that she’s the best and she wants to be best.”
Shiffrin also had a desire to be the best from a young age, and it was a relief for her to notice when she first came on tour that Vonn has the same determination.
“I used to apologize for that because it was almost like I had more intensity than all the other girls. When I saw Lindsey like this it was confirmation that this philosophy I had was working and it would work and I have to stay on this track,” Shiffrin said. “That was a really cool feeling and something that made a difference for me.”
With Shiffrin well on her way toward a third straight overall World Cup title — Vonn won four overalls — she’s well prepared to take over the spotlight from Vonn.
“She’s been a little bit sidelined for most of my career, which kind of makes me feel like the spotlight doesn’t change for me,” Shiffrin said. “When she’s around, for sure the attention is on her but when she’s not around then I feel kind of normal with it anyway. So I don’t think that really changes. Anyway I’m always the one that’s a little bit shyer.”
Shiffrin’s victory Sunday was the 54th of her career, tying her with Hermann Maier for sixth on the all-time list.
“I would love to see Lindsey catch fire again and finish off strong and set a new record of World Cup wins,” Rahlves said. “It’s been standing for so long it would be fun to see her get that record. But then it probably won’t be too long for Mikaela to come around and challenge it as well.”
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