Lindsey Vonn: Sharing Historic Win with Tiger Woods, Family Was 'Really, Really Special'
When Lindsey Vonn broke the all-time record for World Cup victories on Jan. 19 with her Super-G win at Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, she was greeted by an ecstatic entourage at the finish line, including her parents, step-parents and sister.
“Tiger completely surprised me!” the Olympic gold medalist, 30, tells PEOPLE. “It’s funny because I had actually been giving him a hard time that he wasn’t here, and then my dad came over to me [after the race] and said, ‘Look who I found!’ and there he was. I had no idea he was coming. It was a good surprise. He got me!”
Sharing her record-breaking 63rd World Cup win – the previous record was held for 35 years by Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Prölle – with those she loves most was “really, really special,” says Vonn, whose storied comeback to the top of the podium is just short of a miracle.
After two devastating injuries and two career-threatening surgeries to repair her right knee, Vonn has painstakingly worked to regain her strength. (Vonn’s journey and comeback is chronicled in Lindsey Vonn: The Climb, a one-hour documentary to debut on NBC.)
Many had even counted her out.
“I totally get why people thought that I couldn’t come back,” says Vonn, who pulled out of the Sochi Olympics after re-injuring her knee during a race on Dec. 21, 2013. “Two major knee surgeries and being out of competition for so long, it’s tough to come back from it. Even my dad asked me if I was sure I wanted to keep going. I just never doubted myself. I knew I would always regret it if I didn’t and that s why I worked so hard. I love what I do.”
Along the way, Woods was among those she leaned on for strength. “Tiger is always supportive and he’s always someone I can talk to. He understands injuries, being at the top and then having to come back,” she says, adding that he left the ultimate decision – whether or not to retire – solely to her.
“Tiger always says, ‘You’re an athlete, you have to make that decision on your own. It’s not something that I, or anyone else for that matter, can tell you the answer to. Whatever you choose, I’ll support you.’ ”
Clearly, she made the right call. “From here on out, it’s icing on the cake,” says Vonn, who is projected to rack up more World Cup wins over the next few months, with an eye on recapturing Olympic gold at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
“When I came back from the last surgery, I wasn’t thinking about the record at all. I was just thinking about wanting to be back on skis, to enjoy skiing again and then this pressure kept building about the record. Now it’s gone and I feel like I’m back to just having fun!”
One not-fun moment? When Woods lost a tooth after a photographer reportedly hit him in the mouth with a camera by accident. “I felt awful!” Vonn says. “He’s in Europe for like three hours to watch me race and some photographer knocks his tooth out. It was so sad. He was so happy to be there and then it’s like, ‘I’m sorry, but my tooth is out ‘ ”
Even so, says Vonn, the mishap didn’t take away from their happy reunion after her win. “It was a really special moment for us to share,” she says.
Lindsey Vonn: The Climb debuts on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC and will be available digitally on Red Bull TV starting Jan. 28.