That's kind of the whole point, to see where I stand and see how much farther I can push my skiing because the men, their skiing is the best in the world hands down. That's where I want to get my skiing to be. —Competitive skier Lindsey Vonn
Lindsey Vonn's dedication and skill have made her so successful, even dominant, that the 28-year-old alpine skier is looking for greater challenges.
Her desire to push herself is what's made her one of the greatest alpine skiers ever.
She is a World Cup champion and an Olympic champion. In fact, she's just five wins away from tying the record of the sport's winningest female skier.
And that's become something of an issue for the Minnesota native.
She'd like to discuss her accomplishments without the gender delineation attached to it. The woman with 57 career victories wants to prove she can not only win on any slope, in any alpine event, but against any skier — man or woman.
Vonn asked the FIS to let her compete against the world's best male alpine skiers last month in Lake Louise, but they said no. Four days ago, she told CNN that she was not going to give up her fight and was even considering legal action in attempting to gain access to the men's races.
She believes allowing her to compete in men's races would elevate the profile of the sport in the U.S. Those who support her effort have said it would illustrate just how great she really is.
But isn't her greatness already obvious? Couldn't she elevate her sport in a way that didn't marginalize the women's events? When we say seeing her successfully compete against men would prove her greatness, aren't we also inadvertently saying that the women's races are not as athletic, not as valuable, not as impressive as the men's races?
Are her titles less valuable because she raced against women to win them?
I have great admiration for the women athletes who've pioneered opportunities for other women. The U.S. women's ski jumping team is the most recent of examples of female athletes who were excluded from athletic competition simply because of their gender.
They fought and won the right to have their own events on the World Cup circuit and, for the first time, in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. The late freestyle skier Sarah Burke spent her life begging organizers to create competitions for women so she didn't have to compete against men. She simply wanted women to have what the men had — the opportunity to do what they loved for a living. She never realized her dream of being an Olympian, but because of her efforts — on and off the snow — other women will compete in her sport in Sochi, Russia.
It is of these women, and others who fought simply for the opportunity to compete, that I think of when I hear requests like Vonn's. It is their sacrifices that I believe are marginalized when women argue that they need a greater challenge than competing against their own gender.
Vonn told reporters in Canada that her success should grant her entry into the men's races.
"It's not like I'm getting 20th every day and saying I want to race the men," she said. "I try to let my skiing speak for itself. I don't know exactly where I'd stack up, but that's kind of the whole point, to see where I stand and see how much farther I can push my skiing because the men, their skiing is the best in the world hands down. That's where I want to get my skiing to be."
How does it elevate the sport for other women when we have our best female athletes saying they need a greater challenge than what other women can ever offer?
Vonn told the New York Times that she'd like to have "one chance" to race against the men. She pointed at Swedish golfer Annika Sorenstam as an example who "paved the way for women."
Just exactly what did Sorenstam do for women when she successfully argued she should be allowed to compete in a PGA event? She shot four over par and missed the cut in her first round. How did it help women, or the LPGA, when she proved she would be a middle of the pack golfer if she were a man?
Vonn argues including her would create more interest in the sport in America. But what would the interest be? Would it be the kind of circus-like curiosity that accompanies oddities or aberrations? Or would it be real, meaningful fandom for a sport that deserves attention and support?
I cringe when I hear the world's best female athletes complain about needing the chance to compete against men. It immediately elicits comparisons between men's and women's versions of the same games.
Women should have their own leagues because they have not been allowed to compete in physical competitions for centuries like men have. We are genetically different, but we derive the same challenges, the same benefits, the same satisfaction from athletic competition.
The women's basketball game is different from men's basketball but it is no less difficult and entertaining. Women volleyball players compete with a lower net than men but are equally entertaining in their athletic battles.
I have heard arguments over the years that girls and boys should compete together so that women develop the same skills and mental competitiveness that men have. Proponents argue that separating the genders relegates women to second-class leagues.
I believe the vast majority of women would be unable to play high school, college or professional sports if they were forced to compete with men for spots on a team. Maybe the rare Vonn or Sorenstam would make a team, and they might even be contenders, stars or champions.
But the majority of us would be where we were before Title IX kicked down doors previously closed — on the outside looking in. We would be left wondering what it might be like to be in the game rather than admiring the athletic accomplishments of others.
Rather than fight for inclusion in men's races, I hope Vonn decides to use her unique superstar status to raise up and help other women.
If she's intent on testing her skills against her male counterparts, she could help organize a special co-ed competition that would raise money for charity. She could use her profile, her knowledge and her abilities to raise the skill level of other female athletes. Just her accomplishments increase the profile of her sport.
In expressing gratitude for her talent and the opportunities afforded her, she sends a bigger more important message that women's accomplishments are as impressive, as valuable and as noteworthy as that of any man.