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Star female athletes who competed against men weigh in on Lindsey Vonn

Oct 18, 2013, 12:03 PM EDT

Lindsey Vonn AP

Lindsey Vonn turned 29 years old Friday, and what a life-changing 365 days it’s been for the Olympic champion downhill skier.

A year ago, Vonn was in the news for her dominance on the slopes. She requested the chance to compete against men on the Alpine skiing World Cup, a bid that was rejected by the International Ski Federation (FIS), citing rules that one gender is not allowed to compete against another in FIS races.

That storyline subsided as others elevated this year.

Vonn blew out her right knee at the World Championships in February (video here), announced a relationship with Tiger Woods, attended every major golf tournament, and set a return to competitive skiing (against women only) for as early as Oct. 26.

If Vonn returns to form and racks up win after win, talk could very well resurface of racing men. She is three World Cup wins away from Annemarie Moser-Proell‘s female record (62). The men’s mark held by Swede Ingemar Stenmark (86) is ambitious but not unattainable.

Some of the greatest athletes of all time gathered in New York this week for the Women’s Sports Foundation awards. Among them were women who competed against men — golfer Annika Sorenstam, tennis player Billie Jean King and hockey player Angela Ruggiero.

The Swede Sorenstam played at the PGA Tour event at Colonial in 2003, becoming the first woman to play on the PGA Tour since Olympic track and field champion Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1945.

“I think it’s a terrific goal,” Sorenstam said of Vonn facing men. “I was in a time in my career when I needed something to push me a little extra. I look back at my career, and it was one of the highlights. … It really helps you elevate your own game.”

King swept Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973. She believes Vonn racing against men could boost women’s sports as a whole.

“When (Sorenstam) played on the PGA, I watched that weekend,” King said. “She was in every single frame for two days. She never gets that. We never get that kind of attention in women’s sports.

“Because 95 percent of the media is controlled by men, if we get into their arena, then we finally get some attention. Otherwise, on our own, we don’t get the attention. But if she would go up against the men, I guarantee you she would get 20, 30, 40 times the attention. Just with the attention, with all the branding that’s going on today, you have to ask yourself a lot of different questions. When I played Riggs, I didn’t have to deal with all that.”

In 2005, Ruggiero became the first woman to play men’s professional hockey at a position other than goalie in North America. She suited up for the Tulsa Oilers of the Central Hockey League.

Ruggiero, now an International Olympic Committee member, said she talked to Vonn about facing men when the skier considered it last year.

“It would do so much for the sport,” Ruggiero said. “I know when I played men’s hockey in the Central League, the media exposure you get alone, but it’s also a new challenge for her. You have to respect her as an athlete. She’s been at the top of her game for so long, and she’s looking for new ways to evolve.”

Vonn trains in Austria with eye on World Cup return

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