Thursday’s appearance at Sugarloaf is part victory lap, part motivational speaking tour for Lindsey Vonn.

Not that she requires the adulation, and not that she needs to say a word.

Vonn, 30, is coming off a season in which she cast out the demons of two surgical reconstructions of her right knee, adding two World Cup championship globes to what could be her personal museum.

Every win, every trophy, set a new record that further eliminated the need for discussion about who is the greatest female skier of all time.

Yet that living legend, the face and voice of her sport, will travel to the wilds of Maine for what is essentially a symbolic appearance.

“I’m not competing, just fore-running,” Vonn said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning. “I’ll be there for the kids. I’m looking forward to being there for the next generation of ski racers, showing them my support.”

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Less than a week after wrapping up season championships in World Cup downhill and super-G, Vonn will be one of the skiers checking the giant slalom course at Narrow Gauge prior to the national championship race Thursday morning.

Call it paying a debt, if you wish, but the obligation isn’t hard to understand.

Not long ago, before she became an international brand name, Vonn was Lindsey Kildow, a wide-eyed teenager sharing the mountain with the world-class likes of Maine’s Kirsten Clark and Jonna Mendes.

“I remember my first U.S. nationals and all the world-class athletes that were there,” Vonn said. “I remember it was so exciting to be able to ski the same course as those people. It felt like a World Cup field to me, even though it wasn’t. It was a great opportunity when I was starting out to be around those elite athletes. Just a great experience.”

Her just-completed, record-shattering season aside, Vonn recognizes that she is blessed to be competing at all.

She missed nearly two full World Cup seasons and the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the long and winding result of a crash Feb. 5, 2013, during the World Championships in France.

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Vonn sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in her right knee and a fracture of the same leg. After full rehabilitation with medical clearance to resume competition, she tore the right ACL again Nov. 20, 2013, while in training.

“I tried to compete through that and get through the Olympics, and I ended up doing a lot of meniscus damage,” Vonn said.

When it became apparent that her knee lacked the stability she needed to win an Olympic medal, Vonn underwent a second knee reconstruction in January 2014.

Vonn was the reigning Olympic downhill champion.

“It was a really depressing part of my life,” she said. “I’m just happy to be through it and on the other side.”

She credited Lindsay Winninger, her physical therapist, for the rehabilitation and training program that fueled her comeback.

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“Not many athletes blow out the same knee twice and come back close to the same level,” Vonn said. “She is the reason I was able to compete this year.”

The second race of Vonn’s comeback took the World Cup circuit to Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada, where she had posted her final victories before her injuries.

Vonn returned to her familiar perch atop the podium, winning the downhill.

“After the first days of training, in October, November, I felt pretty comfortable,” Vonn said. “(Lake Louise) is a hill where I’ve had a lot of success. I didn’t have any problem with my confidence.”

Next came a bronze medal in the super-G of the World Championships at Vail/Beaver Creek in Colorado, followed by an incredible finish to the World Cup campaign.

On March 18, Vonn won the season-ending downhill and clinched her seventh World Cup title in that discipline, tying Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Proll for the most in history. One day later, she won the super-G race and clinched the championship, tying Germany’s Katja Seizinger in that category.

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With eight wins this season, Vonn vaulted past Moser-Proll’s standard of 62, putting the record at 67 and climbing. Her 18th and 19th World Cup globes tied Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark for the most, regardless of gender.

“It was a really good season. It developed a lot better than I anticipated,” Vonn said. “I wasn’t sure, having been away from competition so long, where I fit in. To win two more World Cup titles, finish third overall, it certainly was an amazing season.”

Stenmark’s record 86 World Cup wins appears within reach for Vonn, who averaged 10 wins per season when she won her four overall World Cup titles in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012. If she persists until the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, she could become the oldest women’s Olympic Alpine skiing medalist of all time.

“I have accomplished a lot of what I wanted to accomplish in ski racing,” Vonn said. “Next year, my goal is to make all the (giant slalom) races and hope to be in the hunt for the overall title and certainly win the most races I can.”

After turning 30 in October, Vonn is entering a segment of her career when injuries and recovery time typically become a nagging issue.

Thursday’s stress-free trial run is one of the few times over the next eight months when you won’t find her in the gym, or on her rigorous schedule of personal appearances.

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Having debuted in the World Cup at 16, Vonn also recognizes that the U.S. development team skiers who will be most awestruck by her presence this week aren’t much more than half her age.

“It’s the stage of the game where I can’t afford to take a lot of time off,” she said.

Not counting a quick stop in our neck of the woods, of course.

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Sun Journal coverage of the U.S. Alpine Championship includes:


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