- Passing the torch is often messy, but there's plenty of room to appreciate both Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin for their greatness.
Passing the torch is one of those sports clichés that any fan comprehends and verbalizes without giving it much thought. Torch passing is easy to recognize: Old athlete walks away, younger athlete steps in and takes over. Torch passed. (The expression goes back to ancient Greece, where runners would pass an actual torch in a relay. No thanks). Torches can be passed to teammate understudies (Joe Montana to Steve Young) or to logical successors by some other metric (Magic and Bird to Jordan; or Phil and Tiger to Spieth and DJ and Reed and company, although that one might be ongoing). But in truth, torch passing is almost always messy, because somebody is leaving who probably doesn’t want to leave (who does?) and somebody else is taking over, and to some observers the takeover will look like a coup, even if it isn’t. There is ascension, and a logical order, but also a subtext of sadness and pain. Transition is difficult in all its forms.
Two weekends ago, 34-year-old American alpine ski racer Lindsey Vonn raced for the final time in her career, and willed her battered knees (and various other scarred body parts) to a bronze medal in the downhill at the World Championships in Are, Sweden. It was an authentically heroic performance; five days earlier Vonn had face-planted at high speed (probably in the range of 40 miles per hour) in the Super-G, suffering a black eye and bruised ribs. (During NBC’s telecast, analyst Steve Porino, a former Team USA speed skier, said that if he had fallen similarly, “You wouldn’t see me for a week”). This came during a season in which Vonn had twice suffered new knee injuries, which pushed her to the brink of retirement. But Vonn has done things like this before. Succeeding despite pain and suffering were a feature of her career, not a bug.
To note: In the Super-G where Vonn crashed, and then stood up, stomped into her bindings and skied to the bottom, U.S. racer Mikaela Shiffrin won the gold medal. Hold that thought.
Four days after Vonn’s farewell bronze, the 23-year-old Shiffrin took her own bronze—to go with the Super-G gold—in the giant slalom. It was not an easy bronze: In unpredictably windy conditions, Shiffrin skied a cautious first run and a more aggressive second, but still finished behind gold medalist Petra Vlhova of Slovakia and Viktoria Rebensberg of Germany. Two days after that, on Saturday, Shiffrin won gold in what is still her best event, the slalom. She became the first skier in history to win the world championship four consecutive times in the same event (at ages 17, 19, 21 and 23, which would suggest, as with All Things Shiffrin, that the streak might not be over, but, see disclaimer below). She did this despite sickness that caused coughing fits that, Shiffrin said, prompted her mother (and primary coach), Eileen, to suggest that Shiffrin should feel free to just bail out, an offer that Shiffrin declined.
Lindsey Vonn: Heroic bronze after nasty header, exit stage left.
Mikaela Shiffrin: Two golds and a bronze. Still very young.
Torch passed? Torch passed. But of course it’s a little messy, because this is sports and we keep score.
Here is what happened over the last few seasons of World Cup and Olympic ski racing. Vonn has trained and raced and willed her mangled body toward Swedish tech legend Ingemar Stenmark’s all-time record of 86 World Cup wins. It has been her obsession. Vonn has only three Olympic medals, an excellent total. Only Bode Miller (six) and Julia Mancuso (four) have more, among Americans. But Vonn essentially missed two Games in her prime: Skiing while diminished by a training crash in 2006 and out altogether in 2014. She wanted 87.
As she did this, despite age and the effects of all those crashes and all those surgeries, Vonn became the subject of inevitable G.O.A.T. discussions. While that acronym has become tiresome, it was perfectly reasonable to debate whether Vonn was, indeed, the best ski racer in history. (Maybe Stenmark, maybe Hermann Maier, maybe Miller. Or maybe women like Annemarie Moser-Proell or Vreni Schneider, who retired younger than Vonn, in a different era. G.O.A.T. discussions are too reductive, but if you insist, Vonn absolutely belonged in there.)
At the same time, Shiffrin blew up. Not to suggest that she snuck up on anybody in the sport; she was a prodigy in her early teens and has pulled off that rarest trick—getting even better. (In this regard, she’s much like Vonn, who was also a prodigy, and lived up to that label, but Shiffrin has taken it to the extreme). Shiffrin won her first World Cup race at age 17 in 2012 and just kept winning. She won the slalom world title in 2013 and the Olympic slalom in 2014 with a jaw-dropping mid-course save. And she has since piled up wins like no racer in history—56 World Cup victories a month short of her 24th birthday (not including a race Feb. 19 in Stockholm). It is an astounding total. She won two medals last winter at the Olympics in PyeongChang, a gold in giant slalom and a silver in the combined, and was shut out in the slalom, where she was the favorite. But at 22, she already has three Olympic medals.
Hence: Just as Vonn was closing in on cementing her status in the sport, Shiffrin raced into her rearview mirror.
After Vonn’s courageous farewell bronze at the Worlds, I tweeted that she was the greatest female ski racer of all time. I wrote a video essay for NBC Sports suggesting the same. Nothing scientific here, but there were a significant number of responses supporting this claim, but also some noting that Shiffrin is likely to blow past Vonn’s records in a year or two.
Full stop there: In all sports, “on pace to…” construction is risky. In ski racing, it’s irresponsible. Ski racing is a wildly dangerous profession; nearly all racers will suffer some sort of serious injury. It comes with the territory. Shiffrin is an otherworldly tactician who does not take big risks and has not had a major injury. It would be great if she never gets hurt badly. But seriously, it’s ski racing. Easy on the extrapolation.
What this comes down to is a measuring of legacies, one fully formed and one very much still in process. Vonn will be remembered for her 82 World Cup wins and her three Olympic medals, but just as much for the crashes and the surgeries that she survived and overcame to keep racing. She will be remembered for talking about openly about her mental health, inspiring and encouraging others with similar issues. Also, while Shiffrin is a great ski racer (and in my interactions with her, a terrifically nice person), Vonn is a celebrity, and there are few more powerful words in the American culture than that one. She has cultivated a persona that lives outside ski racing, walking red carpets, appearing on scripted television shows and growing a vast social media following. She underwent a public divorce, dated Tiger Woods and now is dating NHL All-Star P.K. Subban.
Vonn will be remembered, and is largely beloved, for all of these things.
Shiffrin is a half a generation younger and has pointedly not chased fame in the same way. (Although her social media accounts show a pretty cool sponsor commercial with Roger Federer, who is also a friend of Vonn’s). And it’s early. Vonn was not a celebrity at 23. Shiffrin has instead spent most of her time becoming a transcendent ski racer, and it’s working. Team Shiffrin (for the most part, Mikaela, two coaches, a technician and Eileen) is an efficient and relentless operation. During the Worlds, both Miller and Vonn threw shade at Shiffrin for not racing five events (she skied three). It wasn’t a great look for either of them, but they’ve earned the right to be critical. (Note: After this piece was published, Vonn reached out to me to clarify her stance on Shiffrin’s event choices at Worlds: “I didn’t throw shade,” Vonn said. “That’s not a reflection of how I felt. I have a lot of respect for her. It’s not the way I would approach racing, but that’s not saying it’s wrong. Clearly it’s working, which is why I said she and her team know what’s best for her. I’m just wired differently.”)
On the other hand, Shiffrin and her team have learned that less can be more. Her defeat in the Olympic slalom was in no small part because she spent too much time celebrating (not partying, just attending events) after her GS gold. She has a long history of performing best when rested and with solid training. After winning the Super-G at this year’s Worlds, Shiffrin and her team took a helicopter to Norway to train for the giant slalom and slalom. It paid off.
In all of this, Shiffrin’s place in the Olympic sports ecosystem is reminiscent of Michael Phelps. By the end of Phelps’s career, he too was a celebrity and an icon. But he got there slowly, not only overcoming several of his own very public missteps, but by growing into the role of superstar and just winning and winning along the way. That is Shiffrin. She is growing up, and winning. And winning some more. Vonn’s departure gives Shiffrin a little more room to embrace her success without stepping on any toes, but at the same time Shiffrin is now the only U.S. skier who is a consistent medal threat at the World Cup or Olympics, which is its own form of pressure.
There are different paths to enduring greatness. Vonn’s journey was complicated, with a lifetime’s worth of pain and drama before she reached her mid-30s. Shiffrin’s has been an unyielding pursuit of something resembling perfection, with few extracurricular flourishes. She has already done more than all but a very few skiers in history and she’s impossibly young.
We are culturally addicted to superlatives and in this moment to G.O.A.T.s and Mount Rushmores, absolutes that paint us unnecessarily into historical corners. Vonn did things no other skier has done and she did them in spectacular ways. Shiffrin is plowing through the record books and implacably redefining a fickle and dangerous sport. More to the point: At some distant time, and for evermore, they will be regarded as two of the best ever, and they were right in front us at the same time, overlapping at the highest level.
There is plenty of legacy to go around.