Closing Shot: Carving a legacy
For Olympians to transcend sports and become pop culture icons, being good isn’t enough. They’ve got to be the very best. Or be uncommonly likable, resilient or attractive.
Lindsey Vonn is all of those things.
Vonn retired Feb. 10 after winning a bronze medal in the world championship downhill in Sweden, becoming the first woman to medal at six different World Championships. The 34-year-old Vonn leaves the sport as the consensus greatest female ski racer ever, and the greatest American of either gender.
But she was not just a winner. For more than a decade, Vonn has been a superstar who delivered for herself, her agency IMG, sponsors like Red Bull, NBC, the U.S. Olympic team and U.S. Ski & Snowboard.
Andrew Judelson, executive vice president of Endeavor Properties, first encountered Vonn in 2010, when he was CMO of the Sports Illustrated Group and she posed in the swimsuit edition. What stands out now to Judelson is how she’d always return from frequent, serious injuries.
“She came back stronger, faster and more fierce,” said Judelson, who also was CMO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard from 2010-11. “This is a sport where someone has to hurl their body down a sheet of ice at 90 miles per hour, and literally any hesitation is the difference between first and 15th place. And she never, ever — even after all those injuries and setbacks — took her foot off the gas.”
What makes Vonn’s uber-celebrity status more remarkable is it came despite her under-performing on the Olympic stage because of injuries, said Olympics historian Bill Mallon. “Her overall record in the Olympics doesn’t do her career justice,” Mallon said.
Vonn was an unknown 17-year-old at the 2002 Games, was full strength in 2006, but then battled injuries in 2010 and 2018. She missed 2014 entirely. Vonn finished with three Olympic medals, one of them gold, but her best days were on the FIS World Cup circuit (where she won 82 times) and in the World Championships, events that are generally held in Europe before Americans wake up.
“It’s all European based, and she had to work that much harder to continue to be relevant to brands in the United States,” Judelson said.
Along the way, Vonn became a polished TV presence, took to social media platforms effortlessly, discussed her divorce freely in the media, dated Tiger Woods, posed in the swimsuit edition again and developed a line with Under Armour. Injuries and age have forced her off the slopes, but not out of the spotlight.
“I have no doubt that Lindsey Vonn will continue to have a marketable platform in whatever endeavor she decides,” Judelson said.