I’m more nervous than I’ve ever been before a race.

I’m on the bike, trying to activate my leg. I feel decent. Not great, but decent.

I’m doing my thing, listening to my prerace mix, trying to honor the magnitude of what’s about to happen while at the same time trying to ignore the magnitude of what’s about to happen. This is my last race—ever, ever—so I am deep into all-or-nothing mode. I am engaged in a delicate balancing act between psyching myself up and psyching myself out. I tell myself it’s just another race, but at the same time, I know that it’s not.

It is everything, really. My chance to write how it all ends. My goal, right now, is to get myself as jacked up as possible, so that I can put everything I have into my final moments as a professional skier. This is it. The last thing I want is to crash and have that be how people remember me. The next-to-last thing I want is to cross the finish line after a clean race and feel like I could have pushed harder, like I didn’t give it my all.

The night before a race, I always go to bed visualizing the course—every gate, every bump, every piece of terrain. I visualize it over and over again until it feels like it’s a part of me. When I wake up, a lot of times I feel tired, because if I’m being honest, I’m not a morning person. But as soon as I get on the bike, I start to feel better. That’s when I start to get into my laser-focused mental state.

Today, though, it’s another story entirely. I’ve only been on the bike for about ten minutes, and already I’m feeling like I’ve put in enough time. I want to press fast-forward on my morning. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the race to end or for my career to be over, but at the same time, I’m anxious to be on the snow, to inspect the course, to step into the starting gate.

I’m in Åre, Sweden, for the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, a place where I’ve raced what feels like a million times before.

It’s windy at the top, but the coaches on site tell me the race is due to go off as planned. There’s been talk they might lower the start to escape the worst of the wind, but no decision has been made, so I head off for a couple of warm-up runs. I don’t ski the course, but the free runs let me feel the wind in my face, let me feel my body position. That’s all I really want to accomplish as I move up and down the mountain. I want to ski.

I head back inside the lodge, back to all the boxes I need to check off before I’m ready to race. My routine is always exactly the same, a sequence that feels safe and familiar. I’ve been skiing these same hills for the past however many years, so at this point I know what I like, what’s worked well for me in the past, what’s maybe brought me a bit of luck, and I repeat these things into the ground. In ski racing, there are so many variables. It’s not like swimming, where the pool is always the same length. It’s not like tennis, where the court is always the same dimensions. In ski racing, there are no constants. I can’t control the snow or the ice or the wind conditions. I can’t control the light or the visibility. I can’t control the competition. I can’t control the risk. My preparation is the one thing I can control, so I’ve always controlled it to a T. It’s not superstition as much as it is comfort.

I slip my headphones back on, close my eyes, and try to visualize the course. Here at Åre, the athletes are assigned their own area of the bottom floor, but I like to do my warm-up in my own space, away from distraction. There’s a huge open area where the tram unloads, so I stake out a private spot there to do my thing.

Then it’s on to a physical warm-up, to activate my leg. You don’t want to run into me during my warm-up. Usually, I’m pretty cool, I’ll give anyone an autograph or a picture, but while I’m in the lodge, don’t even look at me. From here, I start to slowly amp myself up. Usually, it’s a progression—you don’t want to get hyped too early, because then you’ll expend too much energy and not have enough left for the race. Today, though, I’m starting to embrace the idea that from this moment forward there is nothing to be gained by holding back. I don’t think about tiring myself out or doing too much. These things no longer matter. There is no reason to save myself for what comes next, because this race is the last of what comes next.

As I complete my warm-up, we get word on the radio that the start has been moved down the hill to the third reserve start—the same place we started the super G on Tuesday— which is a dramatic shift. The new start is pretty far down the hill and shortens the course by a lot. This is a good thing for me, because the top part of the course has been the hardest stretch for my knee.

On the downside, the lower start means it’ll take longer to get there from the lodge. There’s a cat track you have to hike up for a stretch, and it’s a huge pain in the ass, so I start growing anxious and leave for the start way too early. Normally, I like to get to the start fifteen or twenty minutes ahead of time, but here I am, forty minutes out, which is a huge amount of time to sit in the cold and obsess about the race. The clock can’t tick fast enough.

Around three people before I go, I step into my skis. Then I start the jumping and the stomping. I’ve always naturally done that. Apparently, when you slam your feet on the ground, it gets the neurological response going, gets your brain and your nerves firing. I’m also a spitter. I know, it’s gross, but when I’m in the starting gate, I spit a lot. That’s a trigger for your body to produce a natural boost of testosterone; it’s why a lot of athletes spit. For anyone watching, it probably looks like I’m about to kill someone. People have told me this throughout my career, and now I imagine this is especially so. I quicken my breathing, getting more and more aggressive. But I always save the extra 5 percent for when I’m actually in the starting gate.

I go through the same self-talk I have since I was a kid. I’ve got this. I can do it. No holding back. Today, I add another thought into the mix: There is no second chance.

I tell myself I need to annihilate this course. It’s almost like I’m overcompensating for my knee, trying to get my mind to overpower what’s missing in my body. The truth is, I’m not strong. I’m literally on my last legs. But in my mind, I will it so. The course spills out before me.

I am in my skis early. I am focused. I am determined.

A mantra emerges in my head: I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.

Right before it’s my time, I go blank. I slide into the start and just focus on my breathing. When I start breathing hard, that’s my cue. That’s when I get into my race state of mind. At that point, you don’t want to have any clutter in your mind. Whenever I focus on my results, or look at the finish line, it takes me out of my body, and I forget that I’m in the starting gate. You don’t want to think about anything in that moment. Think about it: You go from zero to eighty miles per hour in a matter of seconds. If you’re not focused, if you’re not totally in the moment, how can you possibly react fast enough? You have to be clear in the mind.

Adapted from Rise: My Story by Lindsey Vonn with permission from Dey Street Books.

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