“Like jumping off the edge of the world” – Vonn on the Streif at night
For her very first downhill in four years, American skiing legend Lindsey Vonn took on the iconic Kitzbuhel slope – at night.
Lindsey Vonn is no stranger to breaking new ground, with 82 World Cup victories in a celebrated career which ended with her retirement in 2019.
The American described herself as “broken beyond repair” when she stepped away from ski racing. But in her very first downhill in four years, she took on the challenge of becoming the first person in history to ski the world’s toughest piste, the Streif… in the dark.
The ‘Mousetrap’ nickname was coined by the former skier Toni Sailer, who likened it to a jump into the unknown, even when undertaken in daylight.
The 38-year-old pushed out of the start gate and entered the pitch black of the course’s Mausefalle (or Mousetrap), with an 85 percent gradient.
Vonn came through the experience, one she described as “beyond a dream come true”, unscathed and put it second only to the Olympic downhill gold she won in Vancouver back in 2010.
Following her groundbreaking one-off return to downhill racing, for which she needed to borrow skis, she said: “The Streif is literally the pinnacle of downhill skiing. It’s the hardest track in the world. If you can make it down the Streif, you’re a true downhiller.
If you can make it down the Streif, you’re a true downhiller
“It’s something that I felt very personally, if I could make it down one time, that would be a huge accomplishment. After my injuries, I just didn’t think it would ever be possible. So, for me to have this opportunity and actually be able to do this physically was beyond a dream come true.”
Vonn spent five weeks preparing for the high-risk undertaking and joked in the aftermath that had she damaged her knee still further, she was safe in the knowledge of already being booked in for knee replacement surgery.
The American had long had a desire to race the men in a World Cup downhill – a goal she couldn't quite manage before her retirement – but she upstaged the opposite sex by becoming the first skier of any gender to take on the Streif at night.
When you look out of the starting gate and it’s dark and you can’t see the Mausefalle, it looks like you’re jumping off the edge of the world
“I was a little bit worried as obviously inherently there’s a lot more risk and it’s more dangerous when there’s no light,” she said. “But they did an amazing job in making the track very well lit.
“The greatest challenge of the whole thing was pushing out of the starting gate. That was a huge accomplishment. When you look out of the starting gate and it’s dark and you can’t see the Mausefalle, it looks like you’re jumping off the edge of the world and it’s very intimidating.”
She likened that jump to being on a rollercoaster, with her stomach seemingly lifted up out of her and then the body slamming down when hitting the compression on landing. “In the dark, it makes it much more challenging also,” she added.
Growing up in Minnesota gave her the perfect grounding for a project like this – she would race to the slopes every day after school to train and race under the lights.
It meant World Cup racing at night time proved one of the favourite aspects of her career, and she felt prepared for the Streif well beyond sunset.
“I think it prepared me well for this experience and also racing at night. It definitely feels like a full circle, growing up racing, training in the night and in the dark, and now being able to do the Streif at night.”
Her knee issues meant much of her freeskiing in retirement has been curtailed to tackle only powder on two skis. Powering through the pain, she was determined to take up the challenge once it was proposed to her, partly driven by the memory of her mother, Linda, who lost her life back in August.
I did it also for my mother. My mum always taught me to believe in myself
“I did it also for my mother,” she said in an emotional tribute. “My mum always taught me to believe in myself. And I knew I had the strength because she was still watching over me. I thought about her a lot while I was doing this project. And she always believed in me more than I believed in myself.
“Whenever I told her I was doing something insane, she never even worried. She always says, you know what you’re doing, I’m right here behind you. And again, I thought if there’s ever a time to do it, it’s now because now I have someone extra helping me.”
Watched from the sidelines by her father Alan, she said there was a genuine fear in the back of her mind that her “knee might explode” during the project.
It’s something no one can take away from me. I did it as a woman at night
And after successfully pulling off the challenge, she added: “It’s a lifetime achievement that I’ll always be proud of. And it’s kind of like the Olympic gold medal. It’s something no one can take away from me. I did it as a woman at night and I’m very proud of that.
“I think running the Streif at night is right below my biggest achievement, which is winning the Olympic gold medal, because it’s just so difficult – and to do it after being retired for four years. One of my greatest successes.”