Team Talk by Chris Stafford

When Sporting Careers Are Ended Prematurely

Lindsey Vonn

U.S. Downhill Skier Lindsey Vonn Already Has a Plan for her Second Career When the Time Comes

Chris Stafford

Chris Stafford

America’s ski racing heroine and Downhill specialist Lindsey Vonn may be glad of this off-season to give her battered knees the rehab and strengthening they need because every time they let her down – as they did twice this past FIS World Cup season – it’s a moment to reflect that her final race may not be one of her choosing. She shared this point in a recent interview and also revealed that she plans to race a few more years.

“I don’t think there’s anything that can fulfill you in the same way and that’s the scary part is that you know that you’re not gonna have it.”

“The goal is definitely to make it to the next Olympic Games in 2018 so that’s two more seasons but I’m really hoping for three seasons and I’ll tell you why – it’s because in my final season I would like to race against the men in one race,” announced Vonn who broke the all-time record of 76 World Cup titles this past winter.

The challenge for Vonn, and all pro athletes who live for their sport, is that their body is constantly pushed to its limits and consequently takes one heck of a beating. As young sportswomen we take our bodies for granted because we’re fearless and believe we’re indomitable. So our drive and determination starts early and runs in our veins, which makes it especially hard when the body screams a final warning to stop prematurely.

It’s not what I can’t do, it’s what I can do

The Toughest Challenge of All 

As a rider and dedicated horsewoman who was passionate about her sporting career I threw myself in with everything I had until my bubble burst in my late 20’s. For me it was herniated discs at L4/5 – a common complaint among riders. And while this injury repeated itself a couple of times once I had stopped riding and left behind all the hard physical work that’s associated with horses, it was a while longer before I accepted that it wasn’t just horses that would curtail my athletic ambitions. I love so many sports including tennis and running and went on to play cricket, which claimed an ACL, dislocated patella, various menisci, and eventually resulted in a knee replacement. Add a rotator cuff tear, hip surgery and ankle fractures along the way and rehab became my middle name. However, the mental attitude stayed the same: it’s not what I can’t do, it’s what I can do, and this modus operandi remains today. And this is what most athletes will tell you no matter what level they perform at or what the sport. It means the world to us and it’s a bitter pill to swallow when the medics call time.

Making The Right Decision

For me, planning a second career was subconscious, unlike Vonn who is already taking acting lessons and has an eye to racing cars and scuba diving. And you know she’s not going to play lightly at any of those – it’s going to be all or nothing. She’s a smart woman who is honest about the potential for early retirement and is looking ahead to what could follow.

“I love winning, I love competing but at the same time if I can’t win, my body’s not cooperating with me anymore and mentally I don’t have the drive, that’s when it’s time to hang it up. I try as best I can to not let my injuries dictate the decisions that I make but sometimes your body just doesn’t cooperate and then you have to make the right decision,” she said realistically.

Whenever I talk to young riders about their career I always make the point that while they are ambitious, eager and anxious to make their mark; maybe skip school even to dedicate themselves to riding – because after all young girls who smell the lure of horses and the barn become addicted – it’s just as important to have another string, or strings, to your bow. I encourage them to learn new skills at every opportunity because you never know when you’re going to need them. And that, as hard as it is for them to imagine that their career could be cut short by injury or accident, it could become their reality and they would be left wondering what they can do next. This can happen to any of us at any level and if we rely on our sport for our livelihood it’s a head on crash that can rock us to the core. Vonn also makes the point that when an injury outweighs your mental toughness never to let it destroy your confidence.

Vonn continues: “The thought of not competing and not doing that almost every day… having a goal of winning and being in the gym all the time for a specific reason – not having all of that is definitely something that really scares me because I’m not ready for that to stop. You never know when it’s gonna be over, when your body’s gonna give out and you’re just not going to do what you love any more. I don’t think there’s anything that can fulfill you in the same way and that’s the scary part is that you know that you’re not gonna have it.”

“Eventually I’ll get to the point where physically there will only be one decision left to make so I have to be prepared for that – I just hope it doesn’t come too soon.”

Scuba diving or car racing may not be everyone’s second career choice but there’s always new opportunities that will satisfy the drive and ambition that defines an athlete. Just be ready for that bump on the course that can throw you off piste. In the meanwhile let’s enjoy watching one of the greatest ski racers of all time who could yet break more records and barriers for women.

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