Vail Daily column: Lindsey Vonn relishes record alongside her family
Behind the Gold
As Lindsey Vonn stood atop the podium in the Olympic village of Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy this weekend, her smile was broader than ever. With a backdrop of the snow-cloaked Dolomites, the 30-year-old ski racer from Minnesota finally had a chance to breathe. She also had an opportunity to share, surrounded by family and friends gathered to celebrate the sacrifices and accomplishments that came with it. Gone were the tears and the fears that had gripped Lindsey Vonn for nearly two years — not knowing if she would ever race again, much less win.
Now, she stood proudly as the most decorated woman in alpine World Cup history with 63 Audi FIS Ski World Cup wins. But what mattered most to her this day was sharing it with those who made it possible.
Olympic champion Lindsey Vonn has had her share of success from seven Olympic and World Championship medals to 17 Audi FIS Ski World Cup crystal globes. Her face has adorned magazines around the world. But what meant most to her in Cortina was having her family there to share it.
“The last two years have been pretty tough,” said Vonn. “A lot of people counted me out. But I never stopped believing in myself. It’s a pretty special moment for my family.”
It was ironic that this day finally came in the heart of the Dolomites in Cortina — which held a special place in her heart. Exactly 11 years earlier from the day she tied the record, a young Lindsey Kildow stood on her first World Cup podium.
“When I won my first podium here I never thought I would make it this far in my career,” she said. “That was the first time I thought I could be a contender. Never in a million years would I have believed I could tie the record.”
Amidst the beauty of the towering Italian mountains, her mind raced back to those days as a little girl in Minnesota, Mom and Dad bundling her up for after-school trips to night ski. Those were cold nights, fingers and toes freezing. Under the watchful eye of coach Erich Sailer, she would do unending laps up and down the 262-vertical Buck Hill ski area south of Minneapolis. An aspiring young ski racer, she beamed when hero Picabo Street signed a poster for her at a Twin Cities ski shop. And the day brought back memories of the family packing the car and moving to Vail so that Lindsey could upgrade her skills from a Midwestern hill to a big ski racing mountain — a new home that would define her career.
Careers are built on stepping stones. And some of those stones are painful. Two near-medals misses at 2005 World Championships, a harrowing fall a year later at the Torino Olympics and the devastating crash to open the 2013 World Championships in Schladming, Austria, each gave her the fortitude to move forward to achieve days like this.
“Words can’t describe my feeling,” she said. “I’m really proud of what I’ve done.”
Life as an injured athlete is lonely. There are no podiums. There are no replays of the winning run. It’s six, eight, 10, 12 hours every day in the gym or on a physical therapy table. Toughest of all, there’s no knowing if any of it will be worth it. The only thing you have is your own hope and the belief of those around you.
Then, when you crash again and have to start all over again — well, it just saps your mental toughness!
“It’s been a really long and hard road,” said Vonn. “The last two years have been filled with a lot of ups and downs — mostly downs. But I never gave up, even after the second crash. I never stopped believing in myself. I’ve proven to a lot of people and myself that I’m tough. I’m a fighter and nothing will slow me down.”
As Lindsey and her family celebrated her success, thoughts drifted back to a young girl with a dream at a tiny ski hill in Minnesota.
“Someone told me this weekend, ‘You said when you were a kid that you wanted to be the greatest skier of all time,’ said Lindsey with a laugh. “As a kid you want to be an astronaut or a firefighter — those lofty goals that you just blurt out.
“It’s amazing to think about actually achieving something I’ve thought about since I was a kid. I’m very thankful for all the ups and even the downs. They’ve made me who I am today.”
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president of communications for the Park City-based U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association. This column first appeared in the Park Record in Park City, Utah.