On the slopes, Lindsey Vonn at 31 same as she ever was: simply the best

Lindsey Vonn winning the Jan. 24 World Cup Super G in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.  (Erich Spiess/ASP/Red Bull) 

Lindsey Vonn winning the Jan. 24 World Cup Super G in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.  (Erich Spiess/ASP/Red Bull) 

Lindsey Vonn is having what may turn out to be the best World Cup season of her career.

And that is saying something for a woman who already has rewritten nearly all the World Cup Alpine skiing records.

What makes Vonn’s current season so remarkable is she is doing it at age 31.  And she is doing it after the major surgeries and the relatively minor ills that the flesh is heir to when it hurtles down icy mountainsides at more than 70 m.p.h.

After recovering from a broken ankle in training last August, Vonn has won a circuit-leading eight races – four downhills, three Super Gs and one giant slalom - going into this weekend’s downhill and Super G at Garmisch, Germany.  She is the oldest woman to win in each of those disciplines this season.

Of the eight women who have joined Vonn on World Cup downhill or Super-G podiums this season, only one, Switzerland’s Fabienne Suter, is older than 26.  Suter, two months younger than Vonn, was second in one of Vonn’s downhill wins.

Only two women older than 31 – both 32 – ever have won World Cup downhills.

“I’m the last one standing of my generation of racers,” Vonn told the New York Times’ Bill Pennington last fall.

The only speed event this season she has not won, a Dec. 19 downhill at Val d’Isere, also was a triumph of sorts:  Vonn's brief loss of control after leading at the first time check resulted only in skiing off the course rather than crashing.

She leads the World Cup overall standings.  She has twice as many race wins as anyone else.  Last month, she broke the career record for World Cup downhill wins, held by Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Proell for 36 years.  

In her 15th year on the circuit, Vonn now is just 11 wins shy of Ingemar Stenmark’s seemingly untouchable career total record (86).

“The more people talk about the records, the harder it is to break them,” she said.  “I try to stay focused on my skiing.”

Lindsey Vonn celebrates her eighth win of this World Cup season.  (Erich Spiess/ASP/Red Bull )

Lindsey Vonn celebrates her eighth win of this World Cup season.  (Erich Spiess/ASP/Red Bull )

Yes, Vonn has undoubtedly benefitted this season from the absence of top rivals Anna Fenninger of Austria (injury) and Tina Maze of Slovenia (year off).  But she is crushing everyone else, to wit:

*The largest margin of victory in a downhill the previous two seasons was .70 seconds.  Vonn has won downhills this season by 1.05 and 1.0 seconds.

*Vonn won a Super-G this season by 1.32 seconds, the largest victory margin since March 1997 and fifth largest ever.

With four downhills and four Super G races left, she has a shot at topping her season high for World Cup wins (12 in 2012).  She also can be the first to win more than four Super Gs in a season.

 “This weekend has been incredible,” Vonn said after winning the most recent speed races Jan. 23-24 in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.  “I feel like all the speed weekends have been amazing. I’m just skiing really well, skiing confident.”

She began skiing fully that way again at the end of last season, a comeback year following knee surgery that kept her out of the Sochi Olympics.  After winning just two races by mid-January 2015, Vonn wound up with eight, including the final three speed races.

No wonder she told Pat Graham of the Associated Press in November:  “This is going to be a really good year.”

It has been a bad luck season for the other stars of U.S. skiing, Olympic champions Mikaela Shiffrin, Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso, all sidelined by injuries.  More than ever, the photogenic Vonn is the face of her sport in the United States.

It is also a season when Vonn has added to building a legacy beyond her skiing record, which includes Olympic and world titles.  In December, she announced her personal financial support for U.S. Alpine teammate Jacqueline Wiles, 23.

There are few things on the slopes left for Vonn to accomplish.  She would like another Olympic medal two years from now in Pyeongchang, South Korea, during a season that almost certainly will be her last.

Vonn has been so consistently, almost mind-numbingly successful for so long it is easy not to take notice of yet another of her wins, especially when most of the races go on while her homeland is asleep.

And ski racing is a sport with a limited U.S. audience, expanded briefly every four years by the Winter Olympics.  So Vonn became better known to the general public for a two-year romantic relationship with Tiger Woods that ended last winter than for her achievements as an athlete.

Is that unfair?  It is what it is.  And she is what she is.  Same as she ever was.  Simply the best.