CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy (AP) — Lindsey Vonn never thought she would make it this far.
Perhaps that’s why, after matching the World Cup’s all-time record for wins Sunday, she rated it “right below” her Olympic gold medal on her lengthy list of career achievements.
“It’s hard to really compare the two,” Vonn said. “It’s one race over the span of my career. (Olympic gold) means a lot to me because it was a childhood dream. I never thought that I would make it this far as far as World Cup wins. This is kind of uncharted territory for me.”
Vonn skied through thick fog and soft snow to win a demanding downhill and tie Annemarie Moser-Proell’s 35-year-old record of 62 World Cup victories, capping a comeback from two knee surgeries that kept her out of last year’s Sochi Olympics.
“Lindsey made history today,” said Patrick Riml, an Austrian who is the U.S. Alpine director and who has worked with Vonn since she was a junior racer. “She’s the greatest skier in the world and she will be for a long time.”
Vonn was on track to smash the record two years ago before she crashed at the world championships and tore up her right knee, requiring serious surgery. She attempted to return for Sochi but re-injured her knee two months before the games and had to have surgery again.
“The last two years have been pretty tough and a lot of people counted me out and thought I would never reach this record,” Vonn said. “A lot of people thought that I would never win again. I never stopped believing in myself and I think I proved everyone wrong.”
Vonn clocked a time of 1 minute, 39.61 seconds down the Olympia delle Tofane course to finish 0.32 ahead of Elisabeth Goergl of Austria. Daniela Merighetti of Italy was third, 0.54 back.
At the finish, Vonn collapsed to the snow in a scene of relief, then used her ski poles to pick herself back up, flashed a big smile and received a hug from overall World Cup leader Tina Maze, who finished fifth.
“I wasn’t quite sure whether I would be fast because the snow was soft,” Vonn said. “But I came to the finish and was just so happy. It’s been a long road the last two years with both of my knee injuries. It’s been pretty tough. But I’m back and I’m winning and 62 feels pretty damn awesome.”
Family and members of Vonn’s coaching staff put on celebratory T-shirts that said, “Congratulations to our golden Lindsey! Awesome!”
Vonn can break Moser-Proell’s record in a super-G scheduled for Monday.
“I think 62 is more important to me,” Vonn said. “Now I feel like from here on out I’m already tied for No. 1.”
Moser-Proell, an Austrian great, established the record between 1970 and 1980.
Swedish standout Ingemark Stenmark holds the men’s record of 86 wins.
“I feel like everyone has been talking about (the record) so much and it’s a little bit frustrating because I just want to focus on the skiing,” Vonn said. “I’m happy that the story is hopefully behind me now so I can just move forward and continue to do my best and hopefully get a lot more wins.”
Vonn’s third win of the season — all in downhill — and the eighth of her career in Cortina was anything but straightforward.
As clouds moved over the middle of the course, the race was momentarily suspended after 12 skiers came down. And even when Vonn and the other favorites went, visibility varied over each section of the piste.
Vonn came down with the No. 20 bib and had a nervous wait when Goergl came down with No. 22 and was faster at the first two checkpoints. But Goergl couldn’t keep up with Vonn on the final turns.
“I maintained my speed on the bottom and that’s where I won the race,” Vonn said.
Goergl, who swept gold in downhill and super-G at the 2011 world championships, wasn’t interested in discussing Vonn’s record.
“For me it’s more about the racing and the competition,” the Austrian said. “The statistics and all that stuff, I don’t really care.”
While Vonn sprayed plenty of champagne on the podium — after struggling to open the bottle for a while — she wasn’t planning a big party yet.
“I’m probably going to have some pizza and maybe some dessert with my family,” she said. “Tomorrow is another big day and I’m going to do the best that I can. But Monday night I may open a bottle of champagne and actually drink it, not just spray it around.”