Vail’s Lindsey Vonn says bring it on
At 24, she has surpassed her childhood idol and claimed her sport’s biggest prize. There’s no questioning her legacy.
And yet, Lindsey Vonn can’t slow down. She’s arrived, but she refuses to stay put.
She was all over the map this past offseason: New York City for a round of TV interviews, Los Angeles for the ESPYs, Jamaica for a friend’s wedding, London for a Formula 1 race, Norway to visit some of her husband’s relatives. But the one place where she spent the most time was in the gym, whether at the U.S. Ski team’s training facility near her home in Park City, Utah, or at a Red Bull training center in Austria. There were also trips to New Zealand and Chile to get back up to speed on her skis.
Vonn values history. It’s why the graduate of Ski Club Vail found herself caught up in a wave of emotion last March in Bormio, Italy, when she became just the second American woman ” and the first in a quarter century” to claim alpine skiing’s World Cup overall title. She is quick to admit, though, that the defining moment didn’t change her.
“Honestly, I’m the same person,” she said in a telelphone interview from her home in Park City. “I just dreamed of it being this amazing and life-altering accomplishment. But I don’t feel like it’s changed my life that much.”
Which, in so few words, is Vonn explaining that while the past is important, it’s the present that drives her. After winning six races last winter, including her 10th career downhill, she is now the most successful speed skier, male or female, in U.S. history. (Her childhood idol Picabo Street shared the previous mark of nine with Daron Rahlves.)
While those wins have provided confidence, Vonn still talks about how much she has to prove. The most important victory to her is the next one. There remains a reservoir of motivation.
“I think this year it’s going to be really hard to have so much pressure,” she acknowledged. “There’s going to be a lot of people expecting me to perform. I really want to perform. I want to defend my title. I want to continue to succeed. I’m not just satisfied with last season.”
Proof that Vonn doesn’t plan on giving her title up this winter was on display last month at the season-opening giant slalom on the Rettenbach Glacier above Soelden, Austria.
GS has perennially been one of Vonn’s weakest events, so a ninth-place showing was a good sign ” and arguably a discouraging one for those who have the defending champion in the crosshairs.
One race is only one race. But as Vonn knows from experience, every single start ” much like a pennant race in baseball ” matters in the six-month, 36-race World Cup season. Last winter, the wealth of her 1,403 points came in the speed disciplines of downhill (755) and super G (262). If not for her consistency in the tech disciplines of GS and slalom, however, she wouldn’t have carved out her winning cushion of 220 points over Austrian Nicole Hosp in the overall. Vonn was 13th in GS (140 points), 32nd in slalom (46) and second in the combined (200), which pairs a downhill or a super G run with a slalom run.
When she got back to skiing in August, Vonn said her focus was improving her form in the technical events. It’s where she believes she can make the biggest gains this season.
Unlike when American Tamara McKinney won the overall in 1983 by dominating in slalom and giant slalom, any hope of winning an overall title in today’s World Cup is predicated on being a strong all-around skier.
That’s why Jesse Hunt, the U.S. Ski Team’s alpine director, makes a point of correcting those who refer to Vonn as a speed skier. Hunt explains that the speed events are Vonn’s best, but her overall success is rooted in the fundamentals she developed while skiing slalom and giant slalom as a promising junior growing up in Minnesota, then Vail.
“She’s not a speed skier to start with,” Hunt said. “She originally came into the team excelling in the two technical events, then she really developed into a speed skier.”
What makes Vonn special, like other great downhillers, is that she possesses a fearlessness that cannot be taught, Hunt said.
“One of the things that’s required for a speed skier is the ability to take risks, the courage to really put everything on the line,” Hunt said. “She’s shown that she has that, in addition to just a great base and fundamentals. It starts with great skiing fundamentals, and for those who really love speed, as Lindsey certainly does, she has that propensity to put it on the line and be willing to take risks.”
While her intrepidity is something that seems hard-wired into her DNA, Vonn, the daughter of a former ski racer, openly admits that she is still learning how to best cope with pressure.
After wilting under her own high expectations earlier in her career, she’s put the criticisms that she wasn’t a clutch performer behind her in the last two seasons.
First came her first medals ” two silvers ” at the World Ski Championships, in 2007, followed by the run to the overall last winter. What’s helped her most has been the daily support of her husband, Thomas, a former U.S. Ski Team racer. She could not have won the overall without him, she said.
“He helped me with everything, from inspection to dealing with the media and the pressure and the points and how important each race was,” Vonn said. “It was just mind-boggling to me. I kept thinking of the points. Where was I standing? Where was Nicole? Where was Maria [Riesch]? He was like, ‘OK, you need to chill out.’ He was always there to make sure I was focused on the right things and to filter out all the nonsense and just focus in on my skiing.”
The pressure to continue to do so will be the biggest challenge this season, Vonn said. At Soelden, she found herself the subject of nearly constant attention from members of the ski press. She expects more of the same all winter.
While she said the overall hasn’t changed her, Vonn said there was no denying how much her star had risen after she came back to the U.S. following her triumph in March. To go with being nominated for female athlete of the year at the ESPYs, there was also a big spread in Sports Illustrated and multiple TV interviews.
“It’s going to be a challenge for me to be able to balance my time and make sure that I’m getting all the rest that I need and being prepared for every race and still be able to manage the press,” she said of this upcoming season. “It’s up to me to put everything in perspective and realize where everything is coming from and be able to look at my own goals and my own reality.”
“It hasn’t gone to her head,” added teammate Sarah Schleper, who is also from Vail and has known Vonn since she was a promising junior racer. “It’s unimaginable how much she has progressed. But she’s still pretty chill and just fun to be around.”
As if she needs any more attention, Vonn debuted a new custom-made pink and white Spyder speed suit in Soelden.
For her overall win, Spyder rewarded her by designing multiple speed suits with different color pairings. Vonn plans to wear a different suit for every downhilll this season.
She did not say whether she would break out a new suit for the Winternational races ” a GS followed by a slalom ” on Aspen Mountain over Thanksgiving weekend.
“It’s going to be a little bit of a surprise, every race, what color am I going to wear?” she said. “It’s been a really cool process, and I’m really excited that Spyder wanted to do this project with me, allowing me to express myself and be a little bit more feminine, as opposed to sticking with the same colors.”
Instead, she would rather just stick with the same trophy. And that’s no surprise.
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