Vonn Won’t Abandon Ambition to Race in Men’s Downhill
Vonn has asked the International Ski Federation, known by its French acronym of FIS, to allow her to compete in the men’s downhill on Nov. 24 in Lake Louise, Alberta.
The most successful skier of her generation with 53 World Cup wins, Vonn has won the Lake Louise women’s event nine times. The all-male FIS council will discuss the request on Nov. 3 and 4. The 28-year-old said she wants to test herself against the men because she beats them in training and wants “to try to push the limit.”
“Training is training and racing is much different so that’s the reason behind it,” she said yesterday in an interview in Soelden, Austria, where the alpine World Cup season starts tomorrow with the giant slalom. “If it doesn’t work this year then I’ll try for next year and I’ll just continue to try to make it work,” she added.
“Everything is completely open,” FIS president Gian Franco Kasper said in an interview in Soelden today. “But I am not very optimistic,” he said, suggesting Vonn’s request “has something to do with publicity.”
FIS women’s race director Atle Skaardal told reporters in Zurich this month that Vonn’s request was “complicated” because the women’s event at Lake Louise takes place a week after the men’s. Under FIS rules, no one can ski on a race course a week prior to competition.
“If they let me race both races, I’ll do it,” said Vonn, who won a fourth overall title last season and is nine World Cup wins short of Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Proell’s record of 62.
“If this is something she wants to pursue then we want to help her in the best way,” Doug Haney, a spokesman for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association said.
Johan Eliasch, the chief executive officer and chairman of Head NV, Vonn’s ski manufacturer, said the Vail, Colorado resident had sought his advice six months ago.
“She asked me if she would be crazy to do it,” Eliasch said in an interview in Soelden yesterday. He told her it would be “a great idea” and could give alpine skiing a publicity boost.
“This would be something that would greatly benefit our sport,” Vonn said. “That’s not the point of it for me, but in the end that’s something that could result from it.”
The American said she informed her fellow women ski racers beforehand, and had also been in touch with former Grand Slam tennis champion and founder of the WTA women’s tennis tour, Billie Jean King.
King played Bobby Riggs in 1973, in what was called the “Battle of the Sexes.” King, the winner of 39 major singles and doubles titles, beat the former Wimbledon champion in straight sets. About 40 million people around the world watched the broadcast.
Just like King’s match against Riggs, Vonn’s plan has sparked controversy.
Peter Schrocksnadel, president of the Austrian Ski Association, called it “a clever marketing gag,” while Super-G title holder Christof Innerhofer of Italy said it was “laughable,” and that Vonn would struggle to finish inside the top 30, Austrian newspaper Die Presse reported five days ago.
“There is honestly not a lot of athletes that I can think of at this moment that have really supported me,” Vonn said.
In interviews in Soelden yesterday, Vonn’s teammate and Olympic super-combined champion Bode Miller, Germany’s double Olympic champion Maria Hoefl-Riesch and Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, the reigning Olympic Super-G champion, all reacted positively to Vonn’s plan to race the longer men’s course at Lake Louise.
“I support it as an idea,” Miller said. “It’s normal if you’re a great skier you want to test yourself against a good hill. Not so much against the other racers but against the hill.”
Although Vonn acknowledged their backing, “no one has really come out and pushed for me,” she said. “I don’t expect that, I don’t expect any of the athletes to really come forward and stand up for me because it’s against the grain and something new. Sometimes, it takes a little pushing to make change.”
Should she be allowed to race, there will be pressure on her to do well, according to the FIS president.
“If she loses ten or 15 seconds, people will say ‘see those ladies are always absolutely nothing’ so then it’s not a good promotion for ladies’ sports,” Kasper, 68, said. “If she is let’s say within the first 20 or 30, then you can say ’yes, they made a big progress, the ladies, and it’s good for ladies’ sports. But it can also be the other way around. Then of course people will laugh.”
Vonn is also keen to compete in the two most challenging downhill races on the men’s circuit: in Wengen, Switzerland, and Kitzbuhel, Austria, though not until the end of her career when she doesn’t have to be so concerned about injury “because the likeliness of that is very high.” Kitzbuhel’s Hahnenkamm has a maximum grade of 85 percent.
“Those are two courses I’ll definitely be interested in running,” Vonn said. “We’ll see if I’m still healthy at the end of my career to do it.”
She may do well at both, according to Svindal. “Some other guys would actually be scared of how fast she could be,” he said.
Vonn, who has endorsements with Red Bull GmbH and Under Armour Inc., also said yesterday she extended her deal with Head NV by 10 years.
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