It’s been nearly eight years since Lindsey Vonn broke out in a big way at the 2010 Winter Olympics, earning a bronze and a gold medal, and the years since have seen no shortage of highs and lows for the alpine skier.
Next, she’s set to compete in her fourth Olympics, making her primetime debut Friday evening in the super-G, after sitting out the 2014 Games after a series of major injuries, including severely damaging her ACL and her right knee.
“I am very anxious right now, it’s been a lot of days over here in Korea without racing and I need to get going,” she recently told TODAY before her Olympic debut. “‘I’ve felt like a caged bull for the last week and a half and all I want to do is be set free so I can get my energy out.”
While she’ll be facing a slew of younger competitors in these Games, Vonn told NBC that, thanks to her experience, her age will work in her favor. With such a long break between her last Olympic appearance, she is more than ready to shoot out of the gates.
“I am overwhelmingly excited [to return to the Olympics],” she told PEOPLE last year. “It’s been eight years since Vancouver, which seems like so long ago, but my motivation and drive is five times more than what it was in Vancouver, just because I’ve been through a lot since then. And not having raced in Sochi, that frustration and disappointment is definitely fueling me right now. … Those emotions are definitely pushing me hard in the gym and that’s what I’m going to be thinking about at the starting gate in South Korea.”
Vonn’s career highlights have long been braided together with her physical setbacks, a trend that continued leading up to the PyeongChang Games.
Asked what she learned from the recovery process, she told PEOPLE, “I think it just proves to me that I’m pretty tough. I’m resilient, and my story is full of ups and downs — but at the end of the day I always get up.
“I think people are already trying to phase me out,” she continued. “I’m certainly not going anywhere.”
Already the winningest female ski racer in history — and the second most decorated ski racer, period — Vonn notched her 78th World Cup race victory in December, in France, with her father in the audience. That put her only eight races away from tying Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark for the most victories ever.
It was her first win in months, coming just days after injuring her back in a race in Switzerland. About a week before that injury, she crashed while racing in Canada.
“The physical issues that I’ve had made it hard to have confidence in my body, so it was mentally challenging,” Vonn said in December, according to the Associated Press. “That’s been the biggest thing in the last few weeks: Keep going, keep fighting, keep trying, keep picking yourself back up, especially after the crash in Lake Louise.”
“The biggest thing is just getting the confidence going for February, that’s my biggest goal,” Vonn said. “Confidence gives me a lot of peace of mind going into the next months of speed races.”
She sounded a similar note at the 100 Days event in November, saying then: “I think nerves are good, honestly, I think that’s what pushes me. When the stakes are high, that’s when I get more energy and I get more amped up. And I feel like the pressure that you feel is the pressure that you put on yourself, so I try to make sure I have that in check.”
The Olympics themselves, though, never get old.
“It means everything to me to represent my country,” Vonn said. “When you walk out in the opening ceremonies and you’re with your teammates and you know that the weight of your country is on your shoulders, it’s an incredibly moving and powerful moment.”
Asked if February’s Games could her last hurrah, she said, “Maybe — I mean I’m old, but I’m not that old.”
“Ski racing is a tough sport to continue on doing when you get to be my age, so we’ll see what happens,” she continued, “but I’m going to do the best I can to finish out strong if that is the case.”
“I savor every moment in life, I just have appreciation for every opportunity that I have every day that I’m allowed to do what I love to do,” she said. “So if it’s my last, I definitely will have enjoyed every minute. But if it’s not, I still will have enjoyed every minute.”
She told PEOPLE: “I can break the overall win record this year, but I think it’s more realistic to save that for the following year and really focus on the Olympics this year. For sure I’ll be racing two more seasons.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.
• With reporting by JASON DUAINE HAHN