That addictive adrenaline rush and the feeling of being “in the zone” is the reason she has continued skiing and training for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, despite a number of setbacks and injuries that threatened to derail her career —or worse.
At the end of 2013, Vonn seriously re-injured her reconstructed right knee on the slopes and was forced to watch the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi from a television screen. Then, in November 2016, after crashing while training in Colorado, she experienced the worst injury of her career: a fractured humerus bone in her right arm, which left her unable to move her right hand.
“I got out of surgery and I asked the doctor if he had put a nerve block in my arm because I couldn’t move my hand — and he said he hadn’t,” Vonn says. “It was terrifying. That was the first injury that really scared me. I could have been permanently damaged. It’s scary to think it wouldn’t have just been my career that was over. I’m a pretty fearless person, but it definitely shook me for a moment — just a moment.”
It wouldn’t be until June that Vonn — who famously dated fellow elite athlete Tiger Woods for three years until their split in 2015 — fully recovered and was able to set her sights on the 2018 Olympics, her first Winter Games since Vancouver, eight years ago.
“Right now, my motivation and drive are five-times more than what they were in Vancouver, just because I’ve been through so much since then,” says Vonn. Having not raced in Sochi, that frustration and disappointment are fueling me right now. That’s pushing me hard in the gym and that’s what’s going to be on my mind at the starting gate.”
Watching the 2014 games from television was “devastating,” but Vonn says she’s gotten pretty good at bottling up those frustrations and disappointments and unleashing them when she needs to. She’s hoping South Korea will be one such time.
“The Olympics don’t compare to any other competition, it’s unique and unlike any other race experience,” Vonn says. “The entire world is watching you. You’re representing a country, not just you. Even though it’s an individual sport, you definitely feel the weight of the nation on you.”
Aside from accepting the nervousness and pressure, Vonn expects to be bumping a specialized playlist of songs, including “Imma Do It” by Fabolous and “Do It Like a Dude” by Jessie J., at the starting gates.
“It’s a pretty amazing feeling if you can harness it and use that excitement and pressure and adrenaline,” she says. “If you can use that to your advantage and to push you harder, you can do amazing things.”
Considering her injuries and age, there has been much talk about when Vonn might be hanging up the skis professionally. She tells PEOPLE she has at least two more skiing seasons before she retires, but a lot left to accomplish. Namely, the chance to break the overall win record.
“My focus this year is on the Olympics,” she says. “I can break the overall win record this year, but I think it’s more realistic to save that for the following year, and really focus on the Olympics this year. For sure I’ll be racing two more seasons.”
Next week, international skiing officials will consider a proposal from Vonn’s coaches about including her in the men’s downhill competition at the 2018 World Cup Alpine race.
“It’s something that I want to do for me. If I can train with them and be at the same level, why can’t I race with them?” she says. “I’ve won all these races on the women’s side, why can’t I go to the next level? The men’s team is the next level, that’s a fact. I want to be in a place where I’m pushed to literally my maximum.”
While Vonn might not remember her best races, she is making sure the ones she has left will be unforgettable for the rest of us.
“I think people are already trying to phase me out,” she says. “But I’m certainly not going anywhere.”