Tuesday February 9th, 2010

It has been a year of unique moments for Lindsey Vonn. She met Roger Federer at Wimbledon. She spent a day on the set of her beloved Law & Order (although she has not yet fulfilled her goal of playing a corpse on the show). She walked the red carpet at the Emmys. (All of this in addition to becoming the best U.S. women's ski racer in history, which is her day job).

None was stranger than this: lying in the snow wearing only a bikini while hip-hop tunes roared out of a stereo at the top of a glacier in British Columbia, surrounded by fully clothed people, one of them her husband and one of them taking pictures of her that would later appear in a magazine -- and on a Web site -- viewed by tens of millions of eyeballs.

"Pretty funny experience,'' said Vonn. "We're the only people for miles and miles and I'm standing in a bathing suit in the snow.''

Last week, Vonn was pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated's Olympic preview issue, and inside appeared in a story I had been reporting since last summer. This week she appears as an athlete model in SI's 2010 Swimsuit Issue. This puts Vonn at a singular place at the intersection of sports and pop culture. She is not the first athlete pictured in the Swimsuit Issue. She is not even the first athlete to appear in both the Swimsuit Issue and on the cover of the magazine. (Danica Patrick, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams all did that).

But she is most definitely the first athlete to appear on the cover of SI and in the Swimsuit Issue in the same one-week span, on the eve of performing in the event that will, in all likelihood, define her athletic career. Vonn, 25, is already -- as the cover says -- the best American women's ski racer in history (and very much in the discussion for best U.S. ski racer of any gender). She lacks only Olympic gold medals to finish the job. Vonn has 31 World Cup victories, one fewer than Bode Miller; Miller has two Olympic silver medals and Vonn has none. Yet. She is favored in two events at the upcoming Vancouver Games and a threat in two others.

That alone would be pressure enough. Vonn's situation is similar to Michael Phelps' at the 2008 Summer Games: She is expected to win medals, please sponsors and, to a great extent, carry NBC's broadcasts. As if to further challenge herself, Vonn decided to take off most of her clothing and pose alongside supermodels in a magazine issue that not only sells wildly, but also generates controversy. (Sample expression of outrage: "What is a sports magazine doing objectifying women for financial gain while at the same time writing stories about accomplished female athletes?'').

Start at the beginning. (One disclaimer: As uncomfortable as Vonn was posing in a bikini on a glacier, that's how uncomfortable I was talking to her about modeling fashion swimwear. Not my wheelhouse. I told her so. She laughed in the same way that my wife and daughter laugh at me when they're trying on clothes).

Anyway: The offer came last spring. "I was honored that they asked me,'' Vonn said last week. "I immediately thought of some of the other athletes who have posed in the magazine, like Maria Sharapova. The pictures were always classy, they always looked really awesome. It made me feel a lot more comfortable about the whole thing, knowing they had shot other athletes. It was a good opportunity for me to show everyone what I actually look like, because I'm always wearing a helmet when I compete.

"It was important to me that I was being photographed as an athlete,'' Vonn continued. "All the athletes I've seen in the issue have looked great.'' (U.S. Olympic snowboarder Hannah Teter is also featured in the Swimsuit Issue, although Teter, a one-event competitor, comes to the Games with less buzz than Vonn.)

The timing of publication wasn't immediately on Vonn's radar. (Although it surely is now). The photo shoot was early last July, three months before the start of the World Cup season and seven months before the Olympic Games.

"I honestly didn't know when the Swimsuit Issue was going to come out, and back then I had no idea I was going to be on the cover of the regular SI," she said. "I would have been happy just to be inside the regular SI, never mind on the cover and in the Swimsuit Issue at the same time. And I had no idea that both would be within a week of the Olympics starting. It's definitely a little bit of extra pressure. But it's also really cool. And exciting.''

It was also a little bizarre. I met up with Vonn in mid-June while she was training in Austria with her Red Bull-sponsored trainers, Oliver Saringer and Martin Hager. It's an intense program, and as Vonn points out, excellent training for being photographed nearly naked.

"I did not change my training in the least,'' said Vonn. "And actually, it was perfect. I was really strong and fit, and the leanest I've been in a long time.'' She found herself getting slightly nervous on a trip to Wimbledon between heavy training for the shoot. "I started to worry a little bit about what I was eating,'' she said.

For the shoot, Vonn was taken by helicopter to the top of a glacier near Whistler, British Columbia, not far from where the Olympic skiing events will take place. This was vaguely humorous: When Vonn decided to go forward with the swimsuit shoot, she had imagined something on a beach, with warm sunshine and gentle ocean breezes.

"Instead, I'm on a mountain, with snow all over my body," she recalled. "I race in a speed suit, which is pretty thin, but this was a new level of cold.'' (Sort of. For some of her shots, she was lying in the snow in a bikini.)

Is modeling hard work? Apparently so. "A day-and-a-half,'' said Vonn. "The first day was about 12 hours. The second was six or seven hours. The whole thing was very intimidating. I felt nervous, but it was different than standing at the start of a race. That's an adrenaline rush. Up there I was standing in front of a bunch people in a bikini. It's more like, 'Do I look OK?' Thomas [Vonn, her husband] were there with me, and the crew was awesome and Darcie [Baum, SI's swimsuit assistant] brought a boom box up to the top of this glacier and was blasting hip-hop music, which was so crazy.''

For wardrobe changes, assistant held up blankets, creating a temporary changing room. As usually happens with high-end photo shoots, Vonn was shown Polaroids as the session unfolded. "They looked pretty good to me,'' said Vonn. "I hope the ones in the magazine look just as good.''

Vonn told almost no one about the shoot. Her agents. Her husband. Her sister, Karin. That's it. None of her U.S. teammates knew about it. Her friend and competitor, Maria Riesch of Germany, did not know about it. Her parents didn't know about it. They do now. The magazine is out, the Web site is up and Vonn is now more exposed than any would-be Olympic hero in history.

But for her, there's a potentially bigger problem. "I'm a little nervous for my grandparents,'' she said. "I'm pretty confident the photos look classy and well done, so I think they'll be fine with it. But I'm sure I'll be getting a call.''

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.