There’s never a dull moment in Lindsey Vonn’s life. Her home is always buzzing with activity. On this day, she’s rushing in from dropping off a friend at the Eagle Airport and now she must prepare for a photoshoot and interview. Her dogs Lucy, Leo and Bear are running through the house jumping and barking, excited to see their owner and anyone else who walks through the door — always on the ready to joyfully pounce on newcomers. Her sister, Laura, is unpacking groceries in the kitchen and her brother-in-law, Paulo, is preparing a meatloaf of ground beef and sausage while her mom, Lindy, stirs up a corn soufflé — an old family recipe, she says. And old friend, ski-racer Claire Brown, is here too, helping to keep Vonn organized. The constant hubbub is par for the course in the life of this extraordinary champion.
It’s been an eventful and emotional year for Vonn , who began skiing at age two and, after 82 World Cup wins, two World Championship gold medals and three Olympic medals spread across all five competitive disciplines of Alpine skiing, and many injuries, decided to retire. It was the right time, Vonn thought.
It was at the Buck Hill ski area in Burnsville, Minnesota, where her father, Alan Kildow, who won several junior nationals, introduced Vonn to the sport. Four years later, she began working with legendary coach Erich Sailer, known as the “Yoda of Ski Racing” who has produced a bevy of World Cup and Olympic athletes. “I was really slow at the beginning, and coach used to make fun of me and told my father that I was a turtle,” recalls Vonn.
Soon, however, the turtle became the proverbial hare. There wasn’t much skiing being televised when Vonn was a youngster, so she and her dad would watch VHS tapes of, say, the winning runs from the World Cup. “So, that’s all I could really watch,” says Vonn. “We would buy the tapes at the end of each season and then I would study them. However, I really had my own technique.
I always skied differently than everyone else around me. I was really tippy and leaned in and a lot of people told me that I had to change it. But my coach at Buck Hill used to say that was why I was really fast and that I should never change my style.”
Former World Cup alpine ski racer and Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street was Vonn’s hero. “When I was a little kid, I thought she was so cool and so nice,” reflects Vonn. “My admiration for her didn’t have to do, so much, about her skiing, but rather about her public persona. I really liked her personality. I looked at her more like a superhero. Later on, when I got to know her, she advised me to always find the fall line. And that’s where I’m really good.”
Photograph provided by Lindsey Vonn Family
Vonn says that she almost didn’t make the World Cup team because she had a hard time passing the fitness test. “I’m definitely not the most athletic person,” says this world champion. “They have coordination drills and I was just terrible. I’m not a naturally athletic person. I work really hard at it.”
And when Vonn did make the team, she realized that, although it was hard work, sometimes, just sometimes, it became all fun and games! Especially when she got together with fun-loving teammate Sarah Schleper, who did things like heckling her into competing in push-up and pull-up competitions. “And then, we would always play pranks on one another,” says Vonn, with a laugh. “One time Sarah convinced me to string up my teammates’ underwear on the balcony in front of the hotel, for all to see. Many times my room was ransacked with everything thrown about. The pièce de résistance was the time I mouthed off to everyone because I thought I was cool. It began with our throwing chocolate cake at each other, culminating with me getting a swirly (when one is turned upside down over a toilet by several people, hair hanging in the water, then hearing the toilet flush). I never mouthed off again.”
With all the fun and games, however, competitive skiing is a challenging business and Vonn was always on the top of her game. Even after some serious injuries she had incredible fortitude. “I never thought of stopping. It just never crossed my mind,” Vonn reveals. “Falling is a part of skiing and I think I’ve definitely fallen a couple of times harder than most, but at the same time, it’s still the same concept. You just have to pick yourself back up. It might have taken me a bit longer, but I never questioned it because skiing was always what I wanted to do.
So if you have a setback, you just figure out a way through it. “I have such a good support system. My siblings have always been very supportive. And I learned from my dad and my grandparents that obstacles are something that everyone has, and you just put your head down and you work and there are no excuses or failures. You just keep working.”
Quite a few things have changed in competitive skiing since Vonn appeared on the scene. “When I first came on to the World Cup,” says Vonn, “they were just figuring out parabolic skis (the front tip and tail of the ski are wider than the middle part, or waist). So, in the last eight to ten years, there was a definite change in the way women approached downhill and super-G skiing. When I started using men’s skis, I think everyone kind of re-examined things and a lot of girls began using men’s skis. In fact, I believe it raised the level of competition. “I think it’s kind of similar to Serena (Williams) who brought a certain power to the game of tennis that wasn’t necessarily there before.”
Vonn “went” to men’s skis, she says, because her women’s skis were just not working for her. “Men’s skis are longer, stiffer and have different construction,” explains Vonn. “It started with slalom. I couldn’t hold on the ice. I was sliding around like Bambi. And I was watching Ted Ligety (two-time Alpine ski racing Olympic gold medalist) ski next to me on the exact same conditions and he had absolutely no problem. I wondered what was going on. So I asked Ted if I could try his skis and he said, ’These are men’s skis.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I know that. Can I try them, as yours are clearly working and mine are not.’
“So he let me use his skis and it was like night and day. It was awesome. And then, I tried them in all of the events and it was immediately better. It was something that no one had really thought about. It was pretty cool. And it was a big story because no girl had ever done that before.”
And that brings us to the next chapter of Vonn’s exceptional life. Girls: What they can do, not necessarily better, but with more confidence and support through her baby, The Lindsey Vonn Foundation (LVF) which is “committed to engaging the community and our future generations with a positive and constructive atmosphere. We focus on strengthening the community by supporting girls through scholarships, education and athletics. With our all- girl program we create a comfortable environment for growth as athletes, as learners, and as individuals.”
“The kids make me really happy and to see them happy and that I can make a difference is the best thing about what I do,” says Vonn proudly. “It’s always been the plan for me to get more involved with my foundation once I retired. It was always difficult with my schedule and that’s why we’ve only done just a few camps a year, because I always want to be there.”
Partnering with ZGirls, a program designed by sport psychologists, pro athletes and mental health counselors, LVF has created Strong Girl camps where positive self-talk and such topics as bullying are discussed. There are sections on cyber-security to make sure the girls understand what they are doing on social media, like not telling anyone where they live. Essentially, a girl walks away with a tool-belt of skills “to build a life they love.”
“The girls were much more savvy than I expected,” admits Vonn. “They knew the answers to most of the questions when it came to online security. Chase Bank is going to help us do a segment on financial independence and responsibility. The only thing I was taught was how to balance a checkbook! “Then we kind of integrate all of that with sports where the girls bond with each other and make teams. And they build their confidence. You know, most of these kids don’t know each other, so it’s huge for them. A lot of them come in not wanting to talk and are in their shell and by the time they leave, their eyes are wide and they’re happy and are completely out of their shell.”
The foundation has also partnered with iD Tech for STEM education. “These programs are high on my list,” says Vonn, “because there aren’t a lot of women in science and technology.”
Yet, Vonn doesn’t feel that there should be restrictions on the foundation’s scholarships. “It’s cool to see the variety of programs that the girls would like to attend,” she argues. “It makes a big difference. We funded a girl who wanted to be a race car driver and, as you know, there aren’t many women in that profession. Some girls wanted to study abroad, one went to a UCLA educational summer program.
“It’s not our position to say what’s going to affect a young girl. Maybe going to a soccer camp is going to make her feel more confident as opposed to going to a STEM program. Everyone is different and each one has her own needs. If ‘this’ is going to help them, then I want them to do ‘that.’ Many people had said that I should tighten it up and make it more specific. But I really don’t want to do that. Now that I’ve retired we can start working on a long-term program. I want to build out our program so we can be completely independent.”
Until now, the foundation has not had the infrastructure and the manpower to move forward. Vonn is looking forward to changing that. “We don’t really have an office,” she reveals. “My sister, Laura, the executive director lives in Italy. I’m from Vail. We don’t really have a base. Our board meetings are over the phone and FaceTime. And right now, it works.”
And there’s even more that is going to work for Vonn. Recently she teamed up with Project Rock with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to be “the face” of his women’s line of work-out clothes for Under Armour. “That’s what I live in,” quips Vonn.
“Dwayne thinks I’d be good at acting,” Vonn divulges, “but I don’t know. I think I’d be good at the ‘action stuff,’ but I don’t know if I could cry on command. I’ve taken a few acting lessons, but I would definitely have to take more and I think it would be a great challenge for me, as I’ve never really done it. It’s really nice, however, that I can call Dwayne for help. He’s pretty awesome.” Vonn is just getting her bearings since she’s retired from the world of ski racing. Up until now, it’s been her whole life. It’s not just a new chapter, it’s going to be an entire book!
She has a home in Vail, which she considers her base, and she also has a home in Los Angeles. But, she admits, she never really feels at home there. Then, she has a relationship with P.K. Subban, a professional ice hockey defenseman for the Nashville Predators who lives in that city. “It’s really hard to split my time between three places,” Vonn admits. “And I really want to support him.” So what the future holds for Vonn is anyone’s guess. When she was at the Sochi Olympics, she met the men who won Olympic gold for curling.
One of them, Matt Hamilton, lives within 15 minutes of her grandparents and Vonn told him that the next time she got to Minnesota she would call him to take a curling lesson. “You never know,” laughs Vonn. “I might get back into the Olympics as a curler at 40!