She's been bumped, bruised and emotionally battered. But irrepressible—and impossibly fast—Lindsey Vonn keeps bouncing back, and the world's most versatile skier is now set to chase multiple golds and become the Games' biggest star
This is an article from the Feb. 8, 2010 issue
Eight months before the Vancouver Games, Lindsey Vonn skis the Olympic downhill in her mind. She is in a subterranean workout room at the Red Bull soccer club's training center in Salzburg, Austria, balanced with each foot on a nylon slack line suspended three feet off the pebbled orange rubber floor. She is crouched in an aerodynamic tuck, her hands thrust out in front of her chin. Trainer Oliver Saringer speaks gently into her right ear: You're on the downhill course at Whistler.... Vonn closes her eyes and begins shifting her weight rhythmically from one foot to the other as if executing high-speed turns on a Canadian mountainside more than 5,000 miles away.
She exhales and inhales forcefully, mimicking the aerobic demands of high-speed racing, alternately gliding and turning. Close your eyes with her and you can almost hear the chattering of snow beneath skis. After nearly a minute—shorter than the Olympic downhill but a long time on wobbly strips of thick cloth—she relaxes her body and jumps to the floor, her pale skin flushed red, capillaries descended from northern Europe all aglow from three hours of training on a warm summer morning. "I love that exercise," says Vonn. "Once I visualize a course, I never forget it. So I get on those lines and go through exactly the run that I want to have. I control my emotions and just make it routine."
This is not intended as a joke. But it works as one: Routine. Lindsey Vonn. Hah. Good one.
Vonn, 25, arrives in Vancouver as the boldest name on a short list of U.S. Olympians with the potential to leave Canada famous beyond the narrow confines of the Games. She will ski in all five Alpine racing disciplines and is the gold medal favorite in three (downhill, Super G and combined) and a medal contender in a fourth (slalom). She has won nine World Cup races this season—tying her own U.S. record—including five of six downhills, and now has 31 career World Cup victories, just one shy of Bode Miller's mark for the most by an American.
"I'm sure she'll win medals," says Maria Riesch of Germany, her close friend and primary competition in Vancouver. Vonn's races stretch across a Phelpsian 13 days, giving NBC and its many media platforms the opportunity to transform her into a one-woman miniseries. Her agents at IMG have locked down lucrative sponsorship deals with 10 companies, all of whom will benefit immensely if Vonn mouths The Star-Spangled Banner from the top step of the medal stand, preferably with a tear or two rolling down her alabaster cheeks.
It is a dizzying confluence of expectations, especially in a sport in which weather and snow conditions often produce unforeseen outcomes. "Kind of a lot of pressure," says Hilary Lund, one of Vonn's oldest friends from her childhood in Burnsville, Minn. Yet Vonn comes to this moment seasoned by a lifetime of preparation. She's been knocked sideways repeatedly en route to her Olympic goal, only to resume the chase smarter and stronger on each occasion. "So many times I think everything has been really stressful for Lindsey along the way," says Vonn's younger sister Karin Kildow, a junior at the University of San Diego. "But she's learned to cope. And she doesn't look back. She just keeps going."
She kept going at age 13 when her family—Mom, Dad and four younger siblings—moved from Minnesota to Colorado so that Lindsey could have better ski training. She kept going when her parents divorced in 2003 and four years later when her marriage to Thomas Vonn (a former U.S. Olympic skier 10 years her senior) further damaged her already strained relationship with her father, Alan Kildow. She kept going in 2005, when she was unprepared for the pressure of contesting the world championships as a medal favorite and came away with nothing.
And she kept going through a litany of wipeouts and injuries that have ranged from terrifying to comical. There was the 70-mph downhill training crash two days before the 2006 Turin Olympics, which left her to contest four events with back and pelvic bruises, in miserable pain and with little hope of winning anything. There was her nearly severed right thumb, injured while she was opening a champagne bottle after winning two gold medals at the '09 world championships in Val d'Is√®re, France. There was the bloody tongue, chomped open when her knee bounced up into her chin as she won a World Cup downhill in Lake Louise, Canada, in December. And there was the deep bone bruise in her left wrist after a scary giant slalom crash on Dec. 28 in Lienz, Austria, in which Vonn's skis snagged a ridge of grippy snow and launched her into the air. She landed hard on her left side.
"The doctors told us at first that her arm was broken," says Thomas Vonn. "It was such a violent crash, it could have been a knee blowout for sure. When they said broken arm, I was actually relieved. And of course Lindsey, before we even knew, was immediately asking what she would have to do to ski with a broken arm. With skiers who get hurt, sometimes it takes months or years before they move ahead. Lindsey just goes. It's not normal." Yet, it is.
Vonn was fast from the start. Or almost from the start. "She skied like a turtle," says Erich Sailer, the respected youth instructor who first taught a seven-year-old Vonn (then Kildow) at Buck Hill Ski Area, a snowy speed bump that rises all of 306 vertical feet above Interstate 35 in Burnsville, 19 miles south of Minneapolis. Lindsey improved quickly, and when she was 13 the family relocated to Vail. Lindsey and her mother, Linda Krohn, went first, driving from Denver to Vail through an epic blizzard in a Chevy Tahoe. "I wanted to stop," says Krohn. "Lindsey kept saying, 'I can see the lines fine!' So we kept going."
The family endured in a new environment, and Lindsey flourished. "Sometimes I can't believe we spent so much time on one child," says Krohn. "But it worked. The other kids are O.K. And Lindsey was so good, we had to try." At 14 Vonn was one of the best junior skiers in the world. At 16 she was a member of the U.S. Ski Team. "You could see right away, with her talent, she was going to be one of the top racers," says Kirsten Clark, a retired skier who was on the U.S. team with Vonn from 2000 to '07. Vonn skied in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, but later that season she crashed in an FIS (the equivalent of Triple A) downhill at Lake Louise.
Older skiers sensed that the teenaged Vonn was already at a crossroads, having gone as far as her considerable natural talent would take her. "At that point, it seemed like Lindsey wasn't sure what she wanted," says Jonna Mendes, a U.S. team member from 1997 to 2006. "When you're 14, 15, 16 years old, somebody with Lindsey's ability can go a long way. But then you get to the point where you're racing against World Cup and Olympic fields, and you're going to have to work for it."
Vonn knew all this too. One off-season she visited Julia Mancuso, her longtime junior rival (and later the 2006 Olympic giant slalom gold medalist), at Mancuso's home in Lake Tahoe, Calif. Mancuso and her father, Ciro, took Vonn on a long, mountainous bicycle outing. "It was the first time I had ever done a bike ride, except for transportation around my little flat hometown in Minnesota," says Vonn. "I fell behind them by, like, five miles, and I'm out in the middle of nowhere and Julia's beating me and I look like a fool. I was totally embarrassed."
Not long after that ride, in the summer of 2003, Vonn began working out six weeks a year with professional trainer Jacques Choynowski at his home in Monaco. Vonn slept in the bedroom, Choynowski on the couch. It was an arrangement that lasted three years, and it made Vonn stronger. "My body changed," she told SI in 2005. "I got rid of my baby fat." Vonn got faster on snow, earning her first World Cup podium in January 2004 and her first win the following December. But at the 2005 worlds in Bormio, Italy, she fell short of the medal stand, and her '06 Olympics were torpedoed by the training crash.
So Vonn took another step. In the summer of 2006 she signed with Red Bull and became part of the energy drink company's special-project training program. She spends up to six weeks every summer in Austria with Saringer, 41, whose work is a cross between athletic training and physical therapy, and Martin Hager, 43, a former trainer for the Austrian national ski team. "I knew about her before I met her," says Hager. "I saw that she raced very aggressively. I would say, 'This girl is crazy.' She didn't have the conditioning and stability to take such risks."
Hager and Saringer supervise a brutal workout program. (Often in the first summer Vonn would punctuate sessions by shouting at Hager, "I hate you!") The regimen is heavy on endurance; seven years after the Mancusos dropped her in the Sierras, she cruised alongside Hager and 2002 Olympic downhill champion Fritz Strobl (a sensational cyclist) on a series of switchbacks in a three-mile climb up the Gaisberg, a mountain to the east of Salzberg. When she first climbed the hill in 2008, she begged to stop; when she did it last summer her pulse never left the comfortable 140s.
The next day she spent four hours in the morning working on strength and stability and three more in the afternoon riding a stationary bike. "I'm not even the same human being I was back when I did that ride with Julia," says Vonn. "Talent can only take you so far. I know what other U.S. skiers do in training. I know I work harder. I know what Maria Riesch does; she road bikes for three or four hours. We bike for two or three hours, but much harder."
The training is intense, but the atmosphere is light; Hager and Saringer treat each other like brothers and Vonn like a little sister. "She is worthy of the best that we have," says Hager. "That's our responsibility." They travel with her on the World Cup circuit to supervise training and recovery. (Most of her program is outside the U.S. Ski Team, which women's head coach Jim Tracy says "is actually kind of cool, and Lindsey has earned special attention.")
There is another vital component to the team that Lindsey—a voracious TV consumer—calls her "Vonntourage" (in homage to Vince, Turtle, Drama and E): her husband. They met at a ski team cookout in Park City, Utah, in the early 2000s. They were friends and then something more. They married in the fall of 2007; in the ensuing two years Thomas has taken an increasingly greater role in his wife's skiing career and Lindsey has twice won the World Cup overall title, becoming the most successful U.S. female skier in history.
Thomas Vonn was on the U.S. Ski Team from 1997 to 2005 and was a 2002 Olympian. (He finished ninth in the Super G.) As an athlete, he was the opposite of his wife: While Lindsey is gifted, Thomas was a grinder who came out of Newburgh, N.Y., and didn't make the national team until he was a relatively ancient 20 years old. He tinkered with equipment to milk tenths of a second from runs; she would be relatively fast on two-by-fours. "Everything she's good at, I was bad at," says Thomas. "I was great with equipment, but I didn't have half the talent that Lindsey has. I try to keep the messes off her plate so she can concentrate on training and racing."
Lindsey, who calls her husband "Vonn" at all times (as does everyone in their circle), says, "It's a cliché, but he's the rock. And he's a great guy. It's all really cool." For the past two seasons Thomas has been accorded all the privileges of a fully accredited coach, allowing him access to Lindsey on the hill for prerace inspection and nerves management (which she needed while "freaking out," in her words, before winning the world championship downhill last February). Marriage made access easier for Thomas, he says, "because I was no longer just some yahoo boyfriend."
(On the outside of this fairy tale is Vonn's father. Alan Kildow, a former U.S. junior skiing champion, pushed Lindsey hard in her junior days, in her opinion straining their relationship; then he strongly disapproved of his daughter's courtship with Thomas. The two have not spoken since long before the wedding. "It's stayed the same for a while," says Lindsey. "And that's fine. It's good this way." Alan Kildow says, "I still communicate with her. She receives my phone calls and e-mails." Those communications, however, are not answered.)
Team Vonn took a gamble last summer by declining to accept the 50% pay cut that ski manufacturer Rossignol imposed on all its sponsored athletes and instead switching to Head equipment. It was a huge risk in an Olympic year. The changes did not stop there. This year the 5'10", 160-pound Vonn is racing on men's skis in both downhill and Super G. The men's skis offer more stability at high speeds, a significant advantage. (They're also safer for a skier as strong as Vonn.) Initially only Riesch followed Vonn and began using men's skis, and only in slalom. But as the Olympics approached, other top women, like Riesch and Anja P√§rson of Sweden, began experimenting with men's skis in speed events, with mixed results. "Nobody else," Thomas said in late December, "is strong enough." (This being 2010, all this talk about speed and strength brings up the obvious steroid question. Vonn answered it over dinner at a Salzburg restaurant last summer. "Never," she said. "I have never done that, and I never would.")
Her strength is not her only advantage. Vonn is also the most talented racer in the world, with a unique skill set. "In speed events most skiers are either gliders, who try to gain time on the flat sections, or technical skiers, who turn well and try not to lose too much on the flats," says Mendes. "[Two-time Olympic medalist] Picabo Street was a great skier, but she was a glider. Lindsey isn't just one, she's both. She can build a lead by gliding on the flats and then nail the technical sections too. It's a huge advantage. She has no weakness."
Vonn signs autographs at a fall function in New York City arranged by Vail Resorts, one of her sponsors. Each child—each adult too—gets the Full Lindsey: a smile, a laugh, a few warm words connecting them to the star on the other side of the Sharpie. One group of kids drove three hours from northern Vermont and grabbed a train from New Haven just for this. Vonn has deals with Alka-Seltzer Plus, Head, Oroweat, Proctor & Gamble, Red Bull, Rolex, Sega, Under Armour, Vail Resorts and Uvex, all of whom are buying moments like this and, they hope, a slew of medals. "The girl everybody wants to take to the prom," says Sue Dorf of IMG, who handles Vonn along with Mark Ervin.
It is an eternally alluring image, vitally important to a niche endeavor like ski racing. Vonn can sell not only energy drinks but also herself and her sport, and she can do it effortlessly and, apparently, honestly. "Here's what Lindsey is," says Vanessa Larsen, an anesthetist from Park City and one of Vonn's best friends. "She's a total Midwestern, sweet, normal girl."
Mendes backs this up from another perspective. "On the U.S. team, your teammates are also your competition," she says. "But Lindsey is a great girl. She's just easy to be around."
It's perilous in 2010 to shill too passionately for any athlete's goodness, but Vonn seems a long shot to embarrass herself except perhaps through more oddball injuries. ("She's had bad luck," says hometown friend Lund, "but some klutziness too.") She is a medal or two away from lasting greatness, but that is always the final, daunting step.
With her wrist heavily taped, Vonn returned to racing quickly after her post-Christmas crash, just as she did following the champagne-bottle incident. Five days after the crash, the Vonns drove across central Europe from Zell am See, Austria, to Zagreb, Croatia, on roads choked with holiday travelers and piled high with falling snow. A four-hour trip took nearly eight. The Olympics loomed, 41 days away, and the view through their windshield conveyed a larger message: There are no easy roads to gold.
More from Tim Layden on Lindsey Vonn, including her thoughts about being in SI's Swimsuit issue, at SI.com/Olympics