Karin Kildow knows her big sister, Lindsey Vonn, as well as anyone. They grew up close, first in Minnesota and later in Vail, and Kildow has remained one of Vonn’s primary confidants throughout her ski-racing career. For the last year, they’ve been roommates, too, sharing Vonn’s home-away-from-Vail in Los Angeles while Vonn trained for the 2018 Winter Olympics at Red Bull’s North American headquarters, where Kildow works in marketing.
Kildow understands how important the Olympics are to her sister. She was there when Vonn won her downhill gold medal in 2010—she helped Vonn shave “LV” into their younger brother’s hair the night before the race. Kildow also felt the sting of Vonn’s heartbreak and subsequent depression when a knee injury knocked her out of the 2014 Olympics. She’s been in the front row for all the gritty comebacks, from broken ankles to shredded knees and splintered arms, but until this past summer—six months before Vonn was scheduled to race in likely her final Olympics—Kildow had never seen such a determined version of her sister.
“I think there’s a level of stress or anticipation that I haven’t felt from her in the past,” Kildow, 28, said in September. “In Vancouver, she definitely had a lot of buildup and hype around her, but I feel like this is one step further, just because it’s finite. There’s a heaviness to it.”
Vonn, who is nine wins away from tying Ingemar Stenmark’s all-time World Cup record of 86, once said that mark meant more to her than medals. In a phone interview from Chile, where she was training this fall, she clarified: “The record is obviously a goal of mine, but the Olympics are on the forefront of my mind when I wake up and when I go to sleep.”
It seems hard to believe: The last time Lindsey Vonn raced at the Olympics, she was just 25. Surely you remember her gold-medal scream at Whistler, if not the downhill run that preceded it? The performance remains “the most amazing race of my life,” Vonn says. But it is eight years old, and a lot has happened to Vonn since then, both personally and professionally—including a brutal string of injuries that threatened to end her career. Not all of it has been pretty or private.
Now 33 and intent on racing at least through 2019, Vonn once again stands at a crossroads. You could argue the next two years will do as much, if not more, to decide her legacy as any that came before them. She is chasing three potentially career-defining goals, two of which involve her desire to eclipse men. If she wins another Olympic gold medal and breaks Stenmark’s record, which has stood for 29 years, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to call her the greatest ski racer, man or woman, who ever lived. But if she convinces the International Ski Federation (FIS) to let her enter a men’s World Cup downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta, next December, and then beats some of the guys, Vonn could be elevated as not just the best ski racer ever but could arguably be anointed the world’s transcendent female athlete.
No pressure, right?
Vonn’s biography is already legendary among American ski-racing fans and thousands of young, ponytailed aspirants. She grew up banging slalom gates down tiny Buck Hill in Minnesota, before she and her family—there are five kids in all—moved to Vail when Lindsey was 11. Back then, those who know her recall, she was a tall, skinny goofball, but a goofball who wanted to be great. And those who recognize greatness immediately recognized it in her.
“The first time I saw her ski,” recalls US Alpine director Patrick Riml, “I remember I was coming down Latigo [at Beaver Creek], and she was 14 or 15 years old. She made some slalom turns, and I was like, holy cow, this is impressive.” Two years later, Vonn was racing on the World Cup. One year after that, in February 2002, Vonn made her Olympic debut in Utah, placing sixth in combined. She was 17 years old, with potential that was off the charts.
Perhaps most impressively, she lived up to it. During her 18-year professional career, Vonn has won four World Cup overall titles and 20 crystal globes (breaking another of Stenmark’s records), including eight downhill titles in nine years from 2008 to 2016. She averaged 10 victories a year over one four-year span, and twice won the ESPY for Best Female Athlete.
Life was much less predictable off the snow. Vonn’s marriage to former US Olympian Thomas Vonn, who also coached her, ended messily in 2013. Vonn went on to date Tiger Woods and became a global celebrity, frequently appearing on red carpets or, famously, wearing only body paint in Sports Illustrated’s 2016 swimsuit issue. She and Woods broke up in 2015 (Vonn told the New York Times she had rushed into the relationship too quickly after her divorce); earlier this year a website published nude photos of the couple, apparently hacked from Vonn’s cell phone. Vonn, who had been dating former Los Angeles Rams assistant coach Kenan Smith since 2016 (the two reportedly ended their relationship in early November this year), also has had a rocky relationship with her father, whom she did not speak to for more than four years while she was with Thomas. They have since reconciled.
Vonn accepts the microscope treatment grudgingly. “As much as my private life has become public and scrutinized and dramatic, that hasn’t changed who I am or what my priorities are,” she says.
It makes for a convenient narrative, but Kildow backs up her sister. “I think people have this idea that she’s glamorous and always on red carpets and whatnot, but she’s very goofy and still the same 12-year-old girl I grew up with,” Kildow says. “We make breakfast together every morning and wear our retainers around the house. One time we got locked out, so we stacked up a bunch of trash cans and had to crawl up to the roof to get in.” At Red Bull headquarters in Santa Monica, Vonn often walks around Kildow’s office in a sports bra after her workouts. “It’s really funny, because everyone’s so serious and working at their computers, and then Lindsey will come in with her dog and sit on my desk, like, ‘Hey!’”
Nevertheless, if there is one thing Vonn is known for, it is prioritizing her career over everything else. “Ruthless dedication,” Kildow calls it. She routinely works out for five to six hours a day—and up to 10 if she is rehabbing an injury, which has often been the case since 2013. Her home in East Vail includes a personal gym.
“I’m not living for the fame, I’m living to be a ski racer,” Vonn said when I asked how she balances the two. “And I’m living to make history.”
Not everyone realizes what making history has required of Vonn, but some do, including a handful on the World Cup circuit. A few years ago at a race in Val d’Isere, France, Vonn ran into Italian prodigy Sofia Goggia. Goggia, who finished third overall last season but was only racing super-G at the time, got on her knees and started bowing in front of Vonn.
“What are you doing?” Vonn asked, not amused. “I don’t know who you are, but you’re a World Cup racer. Get up.”
“You’re amazing,” Goggia replied. “You’re the best.”
“Get up, and don’t ever do that again,” Vonn said.
Remembering their exchange now, Vonn chuckles. Goggia, she learned, wasn’t bowing to her simply as a champion, but as a champion who’d come back from multiple knee surgeries and a host of broken bones and brutal crashes—a journey Goggia could relate to after overcoming multiple ACL tears of her own. Respect from athletes like Goggia, regardless of their sport, means more to Vonn than the mainstream renown she gets for winning, she says. “Because they understand.”
The specter of pain or injury has shadowed Vonn for much of her career, often driving the storyline at world championships and Olympics. In 2006, two days before the Olympic downhill race at San Sicario, Vonn crashed in a training run, got long-lined from the course, and spent a night in the hospital with a bruised hip. Her start was in doubt, but she emerged to finish eighth, a performance that brought great acclaim for her toughness if not the result. Four years later in Vancouver, BC, Vonn overcame a highly publicized and excruciating case of shin bang to win gold in downhill and bronze in super-G—still the only Olympic medals of her career.
The narrative shifted when Vonn was 28, smack in her prime. She suffered five major injuries from February 2013 to November 2016, two of which left particularly nasty scars.
In November 2013, just as Vonn was returning to snow nine months after she tore an MCL and ACL and fractured her tibial plateau in a gruesome crash at the World Championships in Schladming, Austria, she crashed again during a training run at Copper Mountain and reinjured the same knee. She tried to keep skiing in order to compete in the 2014 Olympics, but eventually decided she was risking the rest of her career for one event and pulled out. She still calls the injury “the worst one I’ve had” because of the mental damage it did. “I definitely lost my way,” Vonn says.
Lindsay Winninger, Vonn’s physical therapist for the past five years and a trusted friend, remembers the months of rehab that followed. “She was just really quiet all the time,” says Winninger, whose practice is based at the Vail Four Seasons. “She still had the attitude of ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll do it,’ but when we weren’t working on her knee, she was in bed a lot, and you could tell that she was pretty depressed.
“There were some mornings that I had to go get her. I’d be like, ‘Come on, we gotta get out of bed and do this,’ and she’d be like, ‘Yeah, we’ll get it done today. We’ll get it done.’
‘Well, are you getting up?’
‘Yeah, in a little bit.’”
“Once she was up moving around,” Winninger adds, “she’d do the work she needed to do, but the rest of the day she wasn’t herself. That was the lowest I’ve seen her.”
Vonn rebounded to win eight World Cup races the next year as well as the downhill and super-G titles, and in January 2015, she broke Annemarie Moser-Proell’s all-time record for victories by a woman. Her comeback was dimmed only by her showing at the 2015 World Championships at Beaver Creek, where she claimed bronze in super-G but missed the medals in downhill and combined.
Vonn overcame a broken ankle the following summer to lead the World Cup overall standings with eight races to go in the 2016 season. Then she crashed in Andorra and broke her knee in three places, again ending her season prematurely. Last November, Vonn crashed once more while training at Copper Mountain and shattered her humerus (a bone that runs from the shoulder to the elbow). Due to the lack of early-season snowfall, Vonn bumped down the mountain in a pickup truck. “I’ve never experienced so much pain in my life,” she says. “It felt like my arm was detached from my body, and I could move my shoulder but my lower arm wouldn’t move.”
Winninger had to slap Vonn’s face to keep her from passing out. During surgery in Vail, Dr. Tom Hackett put 12 screws and a metal plate in Vonn’s arm, hardware that remains today. Vonn struggled to regain feeling in her fingers and wrist due to significant nerve damage from the break, and no one knew if the nerve would recover—or how long it would take if it did. Winninger was afraid the injury could end Vonn’s career. “It’s not easy when she looks up at you and she’s like, ‘Buddy, you got this, right? You’re gonna fix this?’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, yeah, I got this.’ Then I’d step into the hall and start crying, like, I don’t know if I got this,” Winninger says.
Vonn started competing again nine weeks later, but she didn’t regain full function in her fingers until last summer, eight months after the crash.
Vonn is finally healthy going into the winter—or at least she was when this issue went to press in November. She delayed her competition debut until Lake Louise, where she’s won 18 times in 41 starts, wanting to be fresher for the midwinter grind. In part to avoid turning this season into an all-or-nothing mental pressure cooker, Vonn decided to focus on the Olympics this year and turn her attention to Stenmark’s record next year. But she still believes she can win nine races this year, which would tie the Swede. “That’s definitely realistic.”
Given that she considers Stenmark the greatest racer in history, I asked Vonn what it would mean if she breaks his record. “I think that would put me in a different category when I retire,” she says. “I don’t want to just fade into the background. I want a legacy.”
What does she think her legacy will be?
“I’m not sure,” she adds. “There will always be the question of who is the greatest, and a lot of people have different opinions on that. But I think if I’m able to break the record, it would be significant for me, and that’s what I care about.”
Vonn no longer believes she’s a favorite to win the overall World Cup title—which, of course, fellow Vail superstar Mikaela Shiffrin won last year. A racer needs to earn consistent points in three events, and although Vonn plans to enter giant slaloms and combineds to prepare for the Olympics, she is not the threat in tech events that she was four years ago.
When asked if she is sure 2018 will be her last Olympics, she says, “No. It will most likely be my last, but I thought I was going to retire at 30, and here I am.”
Regardless of what happens in Korea or with her pursuit of Stenmark’s record, Vonn’s third goal for 2018 promises to be the biggest story of all. Next December, assuming the FIS approves, Vonn will push out of the Lake Louise start gate in a men’s World Cup race for the first time. US Alpine director Patrick Riml submitted a formal request on her behalf in October (which the FIS shelved until May), and she has the support of not only the US men but also popular European stars, notably Norwegian Olympic champions Aksel Lund Svindal and Kjetil Jansrud.
Despite the media maelstrom the race is likely to generate, Vonn insists her motivation is the same as it has ever been: to maximize her potential as a ski racer.
“The men are faster than the women. That’s a fact. They are the next level, and I want to see where I stack up at the next level,” Vonn says. “It has nothing to do with gender equality; I’m not trying to prove a point. I’m just doing it because that’s how I think I’m going to get to my best possible skiing.”
And then what?
Vonn confesses she doesn’t know what she wants to do after ski racing—“that’s a long way off.” But she is committed to Vail, where everything began for her. After all, she just bought a five-bedroom mountain contemporary in East Vail—with a custom fireplace/trophy case for all those crystal globes, a gymnasium, even a doggy door that opens automatically for her beloved Bear, Leo, and Lucy—which over the summer was featured in People magazine.
“I’ve got my peace and quiet, my dogs love it, I’m five minutes away from the lift, and I can ski whenever I want,” she says. “It’s just a place that I don’t want to leave.”