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Smashing Success

March 10, 2008
March 10, 2008

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March 10, 2008

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Smashing Success

Once known for her highlight-reel crashes, Lindsey Vonn started relying more on technique than breakneck speed and developed into a dominant force on the World Cup circuit

SHE IS among theworld's fastest women in getting down a mountain, but there was no fall line inthis corridor. Nor was Lindsey Vonn rocking her U.S. ski team racing suit thatmorning two years ago at Centro Traumatologico Ortopedico in Turin, Italy. ¬∂"I was in one of those hospital gowns with my butt hanging out,"recalls Vonn, who was single and known by her maiden name, Kildow, at the time."I was sneaking down the hallway to the elevator, but as soon as the doorsopened, these nurses came sprinting around the corner, yelling, 'No, no,no!'" ¬∂ Later that day Vonn was released from the trauma center, but onlyafter doctors subjected her to a second round of CAT scans. Not that she couldblame them. They'd seen footage of her crash the day before on an Olympictraining run in San Sicario—a sickening wipeout at 60 mph that sent herrag-dolling down the mountain and earned her a helicopter ride to Turin.Doctors feared she'd broken her back.

This is an article from the March 10, 2008 issue

Upon seeing thesame clip in his Turin apartment, a flu-wracked Thomas Vonn, then Lindsey'sboyfriend, had packed their bags. "I thought for sure she'd blown out oneknee, most likely two, and had some head and back injuries as well,"recalls Thomas, a former Olympic skier himself. "There was no question herOlympics were over."

She raced twodays later.

Despiteexcruciating pain from a pocket of fluid trapped in her back, Lindsey finishedeighth in the downhill. Her grit riveted a nation; fans, Olympians and membersof the media voted her the U.S. Olympic Spirit Award. For a year or so, it washer fate to be best known for a run she never finished. That has changed.Lindsey, 23—and married to Thomas for five months—is on a Tiger-like tear thisseason. After winning seven races in her first six years on the World Cupcircuit, she has won five times since early December.

It should havebeen six. On Feb. 22 Lindsey made hash of the final turn of Franz's Run, adownhill course at Whistler, B.C., handing the race to Switzerland's NadiaStyger, who won by one hundredth of a second. That runner-up finish clinchedthe seasonlong World Cup downhill championship, making Lindsey only the secondAmerican to win it. (Picabo Street did so in 1995 and '96.) With six races leftLindsey holds a 54-point lead over Austria's Nicole Hosp for the World Cupoverall title, a feat no U.S. woman has pulled off since Tamara McKinney did ita quarter century ago.

In a sport thatis essentially predicated on risk, Lindsey is putting together one of the bestseasons in U.S. Alpine history by ... going the speed limit. "A lot of theother girls have to push it past the limit—well past—to win," Thomas says.Such is his wife's gift for finding the purest line down the course, "shecan come down skiing 90 percent and still win by half a second."

"Lindsey wasskiing this fast two years ago," adds her speed coach, Alex Hoedlmoser."Back then, she felt she had to win races by 1.5 seconds"—aSecretariat-like margin in the downhill. "Sometimes, she did. Andsometimes, she would beat it in" (Hoedlmoser's expression for crashingspectacularly).

So she's takingfewer chances, spending less time in hospitals. What else? Hoedlmoser cites herwork ethic and ideal body for the sport. She goes 5'10", 160 pounds and, hesays, has an "exceptionally aerodynamic" tuck. But there's yet anotherreason Lindsey is in such a good place. That would be Thomas, who can be foundtrudging along, schlepping her boots, skis, poles and, on the best days, anoversized cardboard check.

Serving as asherpa is but one of Thomas's many job descriptions. He's a personal assistantand assertiveness coach. "He wants me to have more of a swagger," shesays.

"She's Number1 in the world and acts, sometimes, as if she just came in 40th in a juniorrace," Thomas says, rolling his eyes. "And she gets starstruck byanybody." His quick impersonation of her: "Oh, my God, it's ApoloOhno!"

Thomas is alsoher bowling partner, bodyguard and self-esteem cop, cheering her up, forexample, after she butchered the late turn and lost that race at Whistler. Asan ex-racer he's singularly empathetic. He is over the moon for his bride, andvice versa. "My husband is my life, besides skiing," Lindsey writes onher MySpace page, "so don't even try to get my number!"

THEIR MUTUALaffection is abundantly appropriate, but not in a treacly, goo-goo-eyed kind ofway. During some downtime in their condo at Whistler, Thomas was stooped beforea gleaming, postmodern dishwasher, which, despite intense button-pushing,refused to wash dishes. "It really wasn't a problem," he said,"until Lindsey tried to run it."

"Shut up,Vonn," came her affectionate reply.

It all startedwhen they would run into each other at racing venues. "I'd be arriving,he'd be leaving," she says.

"We'd have aday or two of overlap, and we just enjoyed each other's company," he says."We kept in touch by e-mail."

They werefriends, and then they were more than friends. They were very good together.That seemed obvious to everyone who knew them.

Almost everyone.Alan Kildow did not approve of his daughter's dating a man who was almost nineyears older. "I can see any father being upset at the age difference,"says Thomas, 32. "But I would at least try to meet the person and have adialogue."

"I lovedhim," Lindsey says of Thomas, "and I didn't want to end my relationshipjust because [my father] said so. It forced me to take sides." They weremarried last September in Park City, Utah. The father of the bride did notattend—he wasn't invited—and Lindsey still doesn't speak to him.

Of theestrangement Kildow says, "As a father, as a parent, you want to protectand guide your children." He found the age difference "verytroubling," especially in light of the fact that Lindsey was 18 when thetwo started dating. "As far as Thomas," adds Kildow, striking aconciliatory tone, "she's made her decision, and we've welcomed him to ourfamily."

A PAIR OFeight-inch scars on Kildow's left knee marks the termination of a promisingski-racing career. After winning three U.S. junior championships, he blew outthe knee when he was 18 while training with the Austrian national ski team.Kildow is now a partner in an international law firm that has an office inMinneapolis. He and Lindsey's mother, Linda Krohn, divorced in 2003. They havefour other children: Karin, a freshman at the University of San Diego, andtriplets Dylan, Laura and Reed, who are high school juniors in Apple Valley,Minn.

Alan put Lindseyon skis when she was two. Four years later he took her to an eminence neartheir Burnsville, Minn., home called Buck Hill, which rises a majestic 300 feetover its environs. There she began training with Alan's former coach, 2005 U.S.National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame inductee Erich Sailer, whose earlyverdict on her talents Lindsey still remembers. "Poor Alan," she says,imitating Sailer, "you have a turtle for a daughter."

Even then, shedisplayed an instinct for finding the purest line possible. "I was reallyinside, kind of tippy," she recalls, "but he just let me keep skiingthat way. He'd say, 'This is the way you're going to be fast.'"

So it was. By age10 she was regularly schooling 14- and 15-year-olds. As a sixth grader, in1997, she and Linda went to live in Colorado. Racing for Ski Club Vail, Lindseycontinued to excel. The following year her parents uprooted the family andmoved to Vail. "When I look back on it," says Linda, "I say, 'Wow,I can't believe we did that.'" For her part Lindsey seldom misses a chanceto thank her sibs for the sacrifices they made for her career. "It was hardfor them," she says, misting up. "Vail's a really tight community.There aren't that many kids there. It wasn't an easy adjustment."

Alan sees thesituation differently. "Living in Vail is not a sacrifice," he insists."Vail is where the world comes to enjoy a good time. I don't think therewas any sacrifice. Her brothers and sisters were all members of Ski Club Vail,one of the finest in the country. No, it was a wonderful adventure that I thinkeverybody enjoyed."

At 14 Lindsey wonthe slalom at Italy's Trofeo Topolino, the so-called junior-junior worlds, andearned a spot on the U.S. development team. That was 1999. Within four yearsshe had worked her way up to the U.S. women's A team. Hoedlmoser remembersLindsey as a "skinny little slalom-head," trying to make her mark inthe speed events. Back then, she was better at technical events (slalom, giantslalom) than the speed events (downhill, Super G).

Fearlessness anda "love of the fall line," as Picabo Street describes it, made Lindseya natural as a speed skier. "She just needed to get experience," saysHoedlmoser. He remembers a 2002 race at Lake Louise in Alberta, when she"came off the top pitch, misjudged a turn, hooked a tip and just ate s---.That was some pretty good carnage." Lindsey left that mountain in ahelicopter, had a horrific crash at the '05 world championships in SantaCaterina Valfurva, Italy, and was choppered off the mountain again at theOlympics a year later.

LINDA WAS thelast person in Europe, it seemed, to learn of her daughter's misfortune at theTurin Games. There had been the small matter of accidentally dropping herBlackberry in an airplane toilet en route to the Games. The first call shetook, when the device came back to life, was from a U.S. ski team official whoassured her, "Lindsey never lost consciousness."

"I had noidea what she was talking about," Linda recalls. "I found out Lindseywas O.K. before I knew she was hurt."

Linda met Thomasfor the first time when they shared a ride to the hospital. To protect othersfrom his flu, he was wearing a surgical mask. They got on famously. Streetgreeted them at the hospital, having arrived before Lindsey was taken for anMRI. It was a dark time. Lindsey was fairly certain her back was broken."We were both sobbing," she says. "Peek was like, 'Don't worry,we'll get through it.'"

Even after theMRI revealed her back was not broken, Lindsey was a mess. During a privatemoment with Linda, Lindsey confided, "Mom, I might not be able toski."

A member ofStreet's retinue persuaded Lindsey to go forward. "Her spiritual advisertold me, 'You're going to win. You're going to win a medal,'" Lindseyrecalls. "I'm like, 'Really? Then I'll do it.' I'm telling you, I buy intothat stuff." The next morning she attempted to escape from thehospital.

Showing seriousmoxie, Lindsey skied four events in Turin. Her best result was seventh in theSuper G. But, of course, the adviser predicted only that Lindsey would win amedal. She didn't say in which Olympics.

These days,Thomas says, his wife is skiing as if "by different rules of gravity."She'll be back on Franz's Run for the downhill at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Itwill be difficult to keep her off the podium—provided she can avoid anotherhelicopter ride.

Such is Lindsey's gift for finding the purest line,"she can come down SKIING 90 PERCENT and still win by half a second,"says Thomas.
PHOTOPhotograph by Agence Zoom/Getty ImagesWHAT A RUN Vonn has already clinched the World Cup downhill title this season and leads in overall championship points.PHOTOJOELLE WIGGINS[See caption above]FOUR PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERPHOTOJOELLE WIGGINS (THOMAS)MOOD COACH For her confidence and happiness, Lindsey has Thomas to thank.PHOTOJOELLE WIGGINS (HOEDLMOSER)SPEED COACH Hoedlmoser credits Vonn's strong showing in part to her work ethic.