When most people are evacuating, Reed Timmer is heading in. After a four-year run as the star of Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers, he now produces his own Web series, Tornado Chasers, at TVNweather.com. In it, he continues to lead his team into North America’s most severe weather events. His book, Into the Storm: Violent Tornadoes, Killer Hurricanes, and Death-Defying Adventures in Extreme Weather, chronicles Timmer’s dramatic career, over the course of which he’s gone after and into more than 400 tornadoes, hurricanes, and blizzards. When he was young, though, he chased bugs instead of storms—if it hadn’t been for a significant find, he may have ended up an entomologist. At age 13, the first storm he captured on tape broke the camera and got him in trouble, but left him completely hooked. So obsessed with storm-chasing is he that he admits to having no social life and an inability to hold down any sort of 9-to-5. Instead, he opts for a life in which he travels all over the world, wherever natural disaster strikes. Here, he tells us more about his travels and his life.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do? My ideal day would be to wake up early in the morning north of Calcutta, India, analyze the limited forecast models they have there, find a monster supercell, and track the massive tornadoes it produces as it passes across India just north of Dhaka. We’d stream live video to our website, TVNweather.com, and show the world the powerful and destructive tornadoes that are rumored to exist there, but that no storm-chaser has dared to intercept.
If you could travel someplace you've never been, where would you go and why? The place I’ve always wanted to chase tornadoes is in Bangladesh. Just south of the Himalayan Plateau, not far from Everest, there are rumors that the world’s largest, strongest tornadoes develop in extreme eastern India and track across the small country of Bangladesh, killing thousands every year. These devastating tornado outbreaks have never been caught on tape, so I want to chase down one of these two-mile-wide monsters and show the world how much loss of life and property they cause in that poverty-stricken country.
I’ve also always wanted to intercept the eye of a super-typhoon on Okinawa. The eye would have completely blue sky above, surrounded by an “eye wall” in which the winds can gust well over 200 miles per hour, like a 20-mile-wide tornado. When you’re in an eye like that, it looks like you’re in the world’s largest stadium—you see the laminar wall of storms rotating rapidly around you. I have never seen this documented on video. So I want to visit Okinawa before the approach of a super-typhoon, explore the island’s natural beauty, and observe how its people prepare for such powerful natural disasters—they somehow recover remarkably quickly compared to the total devastation in the United States caused by less powerful storms.
What’s the best place you've ever visited? Banff, Alberta, and its surrounding natural wonders. I first visited this past summer. In the morning, we explored the glaciers and bright blue lakes surrounded by the most jaw-dropping mountainous terrain I have ever seen. We saw a massive elk feeding from about 10 feet away, not scared at all that humans were close. Then, just off to the east on the adjacent high plains, we watched supercell thunderstorms explode just off the Rockies’ foothills. Being the obsessive storm-chaser that I am, we surged east; within 20 minutes, we were underneath the rotating mesocyclone of one of the most beautiful storms I have ever seen. The rotating updraft of this storm looked like an alien mothership—it was organized like a living, breathing organism. A perk of storm-chasing in the Canadian prairies, given their northern latitude, is that it stays light until 11 p.m., giving us more hours to document as many supercells, tornadoes, and hurricanes as possible.
If you could have lunch with any adventurer or athlete, who would it be and why? Garrett McNamara. He was the first person to surf a 90-foot wave, and is always breaking new ground in his sport. Others are so inspired they are trying to follow in his footsteps. From what I’ve read, he lives his life the way he wants to, paves his own path rather than trying to blend in with the rest of the surfer community. He has devoted his life to his passion, and I think he is someone who would understand how I have devoted my entire life to chasing storms and the meteorological mysteries that remain.
What’s something you can’t travel without? Aside from the essentials for survival and logistics, some sort of camera. Documenting incredible natural phenomena, cultures, and anything unique about an exotic place you visit helps to preserve that memory for the rest of your life, and also allows you to share those experiences with others who may not have the opportunity to have the same experience.
When you arrive at a new destination, what’s usually first on your agenda? I rarely travel anywhere unless it involves some type of extreme storm, so the first thing I do is make sure I secure shelter, gather the essentials for survival in case we are trapped for weeks, and continually monitor the weather forecast so I can adjust our position accordingly to experience and study the worst the storm has to offer.
What motivates you to keep chasing storms? I have been obsessed with extreme weather for as long as I can remember, but actually was scared to death of thunder and lightning when I was really little. That led me to face that fear and always strive to understand it. In that process, I realized how little we know about powerful storms. The many mysteries of tornado science and other parts of meteorology draw me in on a scientific-curiosity level, but at the same time, the feeling of adrenaline and awe when you’re standing 100 yards from the planet’s most powerful natural force can’t be put into words.
Every time I see a tornado at close range, I’m completely mesmerized. The thought that this thing could kill me never crosses my mind. The beauty is that not only do I do what I love for a living, but our work also saves lives through helping in the warning process and trying to better understand these beautiful but deadly forces of nature.
As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets? My dream has been to be a storm chaser as long as I can remember. However, I was a major science nerd and my free time was spent collecting insects and participating in science competitions. I cared more about Science Olympiad than school, actually, but that wasn’t a bad thing because it encouraged independent learning. My insect collection was one of my most prized possessions. When, at age 15, I captured an Eastern Hercules Beetle, North America’s largest beetle, which has a massive horn on its head and is a very rare find, that was, in my mind, the pinnacle of entomology. I realized it was time to retire and focus 100 percent on my true passion: chasing storms.
When and how did you first venture into meteorology? My first storm-chasing experience was at age 13, when a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for my home town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Instinct kicked in, and I ran and grabbed the family video camera and positioned on foot to the front yard to meet the storm head on. Next thing I knew, I was getting pelted by golf-ball-sized hail and the camera was destroyed. Let’s just say my mom wasn’t too happy about that one.
What advice would you give to a young storm chaser? Never give up on your passion. Don’t let other people tell you what to do with your life. Make your own path and never stop learning and being curious. Watch as many tornado videos as possible. Look up science information on the Internet. Enroll in internships and SKYWARN training courses at your local National Weather Service office to learn the basics. Always go with experienced chasers rather than venture out like I did back as a freshman in meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. I didn’t know what I was doing, and an F5 almost killed me as I abandoned my vehicle and clung onto the underside of an overpass while being sprayed by mud. I almost died, but, to be honest, it made me even more hooked on storm chasing.
Who have been your most influential role models? First, Jeff Piotrowski, the pioneer of extreme storm chasing and documenting powerful tornadoes from extreme close range. He was the nicest person I’ve ever met, and would always take time to talk storms and point me in the right direction. Another idol of mine is the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore. I can relate to his continued passion when covering all forms of extreme weather for his job. He is unparalleled in the coverage of severe weather for television. His passion for the weather is genuine when covering storms, and that’s what makes him so popular—people are inspired by his passion in fields even outside of meteorology.
Do you have a life philosophy? I live in the moment, but am also a very big-picture thinker. When I’m not storm chasing and during the off-season, when I have to handle day-to-day obligations like paying bills and buying groceries, I feel lost and out of place. It’s probably because I’m very scatterbrained on the short-term, and have trouble thriving in a “normal” life. I have no routine and basically no social or personal life since I devote every ounce of energy to my passion of storm chasing.
I also lose things like no tomorrow, like credit cards, clothes, my glasses, you name it. I think I lost my driver’s license a dozen times the first year after I got it at 16. However, the big-picture and long-term goals and plans always seem so clear. My life’s work, TVNweather.com, will one day be the go-to source for extreme weather coverage and forecast information—just watch it happen. It might just take awhile because time is also something I have trouble with. My friends and family are always so frustrated because for some reason I can never be on time for anything. I wish the Earth rotated on its axis just a little bit more slowly.
Have you ever experienced a near accident in your travels that made you think twice about going out again? I’ve made the mistake of under-preparing before chasing Hurricane Dean in Jamaica, and it led to some big problems and nearly the worst-case scenario. Another time I was under-prepared, my Honda Accord was swept away by the 20-foot storm of Hurricane Katrina, forcing us to evacuate the flood zone by fishing boat. I found out my mom filed a missing-person report with CNN, and felt terrible. At the very least, we should have had a satellite phone.
I’ve made lots of mistakes, but quitting storm-chasing has never crossed my mind. Even if TVNweather.com fails and my storm-chasing businesses are run into the ground, I’ll just simplify and go back to chasing in my 1985 Plymouth Reliant like I used to. Hell, I’ll even storm chase on a bike if I have to. I’ll always do whatever it takes to pursue my passion for the rest of my life.
If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why? Maybe a professional poker player, since I have difficulty with routine, and would be fired instantly in a 9-to-5 job setting for not showing up on time. I think jobs should always be results-oriented and not hours-based. I’ll never understand the whole 9-to-5 concept. I work best in the middle of the night, so forcing work hours on a person like me destroys my productivity. But I also have a passion for math and statistics, as well as excitement, so being a poker player wouldn’t be too bad. But I’d get bored of the monotony very quickly.
Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list. One: Measure a 600mph wind inside a tornado suction vortex with our Dominators and mobile radar units. Two: Chase a water spout by jet ski. Three: Find a girlfriend or life partner that understands and supports my passion. Let’s just say that my previous relationships have always blown up at least partly because I’m rarely in one spot for any length of time. Honestly, things can get pretty lonely during the off-season with no storms to chase.
To many of us, he’ll always be the kid in St. Elmo’s Fire in love with his best friend’s girl. But Andrew McCarthy has, over the decades, evolved out of his Brat Pack acting phase and into high-caliber travel writing that’s won him heaps of awards and gotten his byline into publications like The Atlantic, The New York Times, and National Geographic Traveler, where he’s an editor-at-large. His book, The Longest Way Home: One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down, is about his solo journeys to places like Patagonia and Kilimanjaro in search of the courage to marry his fiancé (he eventually finds it). In this interview, he reveals how a Vietnamese kid on a scooter turned him into a travel writer; the wonders of grapefruit-seed extract; and that his perfect day would involve writing, hiking, acting, and Maui.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do? I'd get up before dawn in Keihi, Maui, and kayak south, into the swell. I'd have my flippers on, snorkel and mask ready, and when I saw the turtles, I'd slip in and swim with them. I'd get all the way to La Perouse Bay and swim with the porpoises for a while. The sun would come up over Haleakala and I'd let the current help me back. Eat some fresh mango from the tree, maybe some pineapple. Then I'd write for several hours. In the afternoon I'd be teleported to Wyoming’s Absaroka Mountains, where I'd hike for a few hours and set up camp. Once the sky got dark, I'd teleport to New York City, go to the theater, and perform in a great play.
If you could travel someplace you've never been, where would you go and why? Since Burma is opening up, I'd love to get there before McDonald's does. I had an amazing experience in Angkor Wat 20 years ago. There was no one there, though I understand it's much different now. I think the same may be said about Burma in a short time, so now seems the moment.
What’s the best place you've ever visited? That's very difficult to say. I've had amazing times and terrible times and the variable seems to be me and my attitude or mood, not the place. That said, I'd always wanted to get to Patagonia, and when I finally did, it was better than I’d imagined. I'm plotting to get back. I went with my son to the Sahara Desert and we had an incredible experience. And let's face it, Rome and Paris aren't bad either.
If you could have lunch with any adventurer, who would it be and why? I'd love to talk with Ernest Shackleton about the Endurance expedition, and the unbelievable journey he undertook to get help without losing a man. I'd want to hear Fraya Stark talk about her exploits in Persia; she had a wonderful solitary spirit. We could do a week of long lunches—I’d like to hear about Richard Burton's African insanity. The Irish writer Dervla Murphy has had some amazing jaunts. The list goes on.
What’s something you can’t travel without? I hate to say it, but my computer. For writing. But if I were relieved of that, and if I relieved myself from the illusion that I need to be connected, I'd say that I don't need much. I like to travel with a small bottle of grapefruit-seed extract. A few drops a day and stomach problems are not a concern.
When you arrive at a new destination, what’s usually first on your agenda? I like to get out and start walking, doesn't really matter where. The rhythm of walking is very stabilizing. And I like to ask for help fairly quickly, which relieves me of the illusion that I've got it all covered and connects me to the people, which prevents isolation from building up.
What motivates you to keep writing? To be the best version of myself, I need to feel like I've been creative in some form every day. It was one of the reasons I felt such great relief when I began writing, which I came to fairly late in life. As an actor, I always wait to be given an opportunity to create. It's part of the reason I’ve acted in things that I shouldn't have—I just needed to ply my trade. I don't feel that need with acting so much anymore, especially since I can now get my kicks out with the writing, and I can write what the hell I want.
As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, do you have any regrets? The first time I walked out on stage at 15, I felt like myself fully for the first time and that was that. It was done. There was just a knowing. No decision to be made, no conversation to be had. It was what I was going to do.
When and how did you first venture into travel writing? I'd been traveling quite a bit, solo mostly. When you travel alone for an extended period, you can become quite untethered, so I tried to keep a journal. But I was a flop at that; it was indulgent, silly, and repetitive. One day in Saigon, a kid on a scooter asked me if I wanted a ride. So I hopped on his scooter and he showed me the city from his perspective. When I went back to my hotel that night, I wrote it down as it happened. I'm an actor, so I know a scene, I know dialogue—I've said so much bad dialogue in my career that I know good dialogue when I hear it. I know story arc and all that. That's what I'd been doing my whole life. So I started writing down scenes every time I traveled. This went on for 10 years or so, on every trip I took, with no real intention other than as a way of grounding myself while on the road. Finally I approached an editor. He heard what I was saying and was able to see beyond stereotyping and he took a chance. It took off from there.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer? In travel writing it's simple. Tell me a story, don't sell me a destination. That's something I inherently knew from my years of acting: "It's the story, stupid." Another reason I’ve been successful at the writing is because I believe in what I'm writing about. "Travel changed my life, it can change yours." That message is underneath every story I write. It's rarely overt, but it's the energy underneath. And that energy transmits. That, and learn how to use a semicolon.
Who have been your most influential role models? Paul Theroux's travel books had a profound effect on me. They opened my eyes to a way of travel that I had not considered—namely, go, go alone, go far, stay gone awhile. His power of observation and willingness to be who he was made great sense to me. As a young actor, I was quite enamored with Montgomery Clift, perhaps not the best role model.
Do you have a life philosophy? Say please and thank you.
Have you ever made a mistake in your travels that made you think twice about going out again? I've made lots of mistakes on the road. Usually they turn out well because then I need to ask for help and then I get into some interesting adventures. The road can be lonely. You ask yourself why you are so far from home and the people you love. It's a strange push-pull.
If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why? I'm not really qualified to do that much. I took a few NOLS courses a long time ago, and I've fantasized about being an instructor, but I don't think I have the patience.
Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list. Since I'm such a bad flyer, I think I'd like to learn to fly a plane. I'd like to cross the Sahara, not in a car. I'd like to speak a language other than English fluently.
By 2020, the International Energy Agency predicts, the United States will be a net exporter of natural gas. By 2035 we will be energy independent. This is largely due to the current boom in domestic gas drilling, using a controversial series of techniques known as hydraulic fracturing—or fracking, in which pressurized water and chemicals release natural gas and petroleum trapped in underground shale formations. There are temporary financial windfalls for the communities at the surface, as well as environmental degradation; anti-fracking campaigns have become a cause célèbre, with stars like Mark Ruffalo joining the fight. Now Hollywood weighs in with Promised Land, directed by Gus Van Sant, the auteur of American angst. The director and the film’s cowriters, Matt Damon and John Krasinski, have stated repeatedly that Promised Land takes no sides. But right-wing media outlets are gleefully predicting bias, and Participant Media—which backed advocacy documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove—helped fund the film. So is Promised Land an agnostic work of art or a cleverly disguised polemic?
First, the plotlines: Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, a Big Energy shill who is dispatched to gorgeously dilapidated McKinley, Pennsylvania, to secure drilling rights by any means necessary. Butler dons work boots, buys rounds, and spins fantasies of untold riches to anyone who will listen. He also falls in love with Alice, a schoolteacher played with down-home allure by Rosemarie DeWitt. Butler repeatedly tells her that he’s “a good guy,” and he believes it, convinced he is offering economic freedom.
Butler’s operation is complicated when activist Dustin Noble (Krasinski) shows up, plastering the town with posters of poisoned cattle. What follows is a war for the hearts, minds, and shale gas of the people of McKinley, a battle about which Noble insists “there is no neutral position.” The film does its best to take one, however, thanks in part to a smartly executed surprise at the conclusion; like any good work of art, Promised Land leaves many ambiguities on the table. Still, a newcomer to the issue won’t come away feeling warm toward the Chesapeake Energies of the world. Spoiler alert: fracking and Hollywood don’t mix.
Forty-five feet. That’s the biggest wave ever surfed by a woman. And the one who did it was Maya Gabeira. She set that record at Dungeons, South Africa, in 2009 but was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1987, the daughter of a prominent politician.
Though she’s from Brazil, Gabeira didn’t fall in love with her sport until she traveled to Hawaii at age 17. And then everything clicked: She—and the rest of the world—discovered her fearlessness. Since she surfed her “first big day out at Waimea Bay,” she’s won five Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards and an ESPY that named her the best female action-sports athlete.
She takes that conquering spirit on the road with her. In this interview, she tells us that a life without traveling bravely wouldn’t be a life at all. She’s especially passionate about trips to Tahiti but yearns to see Tibet. In San Diego, she helps others face their fears during the surf lessons she teaches via the adventure-travel company Zozi. Gabeira specializes in the tow-in method—the better to get to big waves with—so if that’s something you’ve wanted to get into, consider adding a session with her to your bucket list.
Meantime, read this interview. In it, Gabeira muses that if she’d had the talent for it, she might have become a singer or actress. She makes no qualms about the fact that she’s addicted to her computer screen—Skype, she says, is a blessing to her global lifestyle. And she touches on her commitment to healthy living: Besides surfing, she’s also big into yoga and Pilates.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do? I’d start by having breakfast and a nice coffee in the dark while checking the news and forecast. Then I’d spend the morning surfing with friends and the afternoon doing a lunchtime Pilates class. Then I’d have dinner and a movie with my boyfriend [actor Jesse Spencer].
If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why? Tibet. I have always wanted to check it out. I love the scenery and history of the place.
Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special? Tahiti. It's a true paradise, and it’s where one of my favorite waves in the world is—Teahupoo. I also love the people and the food. If you make it out there, order the poisson cru—it’s the best sashimi plate ever.
If you could have lunch with any athlete or adventurer, who would it be and why? Thats a hard one. I can think of so many people I would love to meet. Let's say Pele, the Brazilian soccer hero. He seems so down to earth and is one of our all-time heroes in Brazil.
What’s something you can’t travel without? My computer. I need it to check the surf, for news, and for downloading and playing with photos and footage of my trips. I can’t live without Skype while on the road, either. I need to see my family on screen.
When you arrive at a new destination, what’s usually first on your agenda? Food is usually a first. Then I think about exploring and surfing.
What motivates you to keep surfing? The lifestyle, the challenge, and the fun. I love being in the ocean, as well as being healthy and active. I always come in from a surf session feeling refreshed and so much better.
When and how did you first venture into big-wave surfing? When I was 17 years old and first came to Oahu, Hawaii. That was when I really fell in love with the big waves. I started surfing Sunset and small Waimea that year. At age 18, I surfed my first big day out at Waimea Bay.
What advice you would give to a young athlete? Keep healthy, have fun, and be passionate about what you do because it shows on your performance. Also, it’s easier to reach the top that way.
Who was your most influential mentor? What did he or she teach you? [Big-wave champion] Carlos Burle. He taught me so many things. But maybe one of the most important was to always have fun with this sport. He never wanted me to stress out too much, and he kept me grounded.
Do you have a life philosophy? Not really, but I love being healthy and keeping life simple but exciting at the same time.
Have you ever made a mistake in your travels that made you think twice about going out again? Oh yes, many. But I would never stop traveling because to me, that would be like stopping to live. I learn with my mistakes, but I am not scared of being exposed to the challenges of a life on the road.
As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets? I don’t know what I wanted as a child. At one point I guess I told my mom I wanted to be famous—an actress, model, or singer. I was obviously a kid, because I couldn't sing to save my own life, ha!
If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why? If I had any talent, maybe a singer. It must be incredible to be able to light up a whole stadium with your lyrics and on-stage performance. Music is inspiring.
Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list. Paddle the left at Jaws.
A couple of months before last year’s ski season began, Lindsey Vonn posted a video clip on her Facebook page of a training run in Portillo, Chile. The video, which plays in slow motion and split screen, shows Vonn running a super-G course side by side with Aksel Lund Svindal, the two-time men’s overall champion from Norway. For the past several summers, Vonn has trained alongside male racers at camps in Portillo and Mount Hutt, New Zealand, and since 2009 she has been the only woman to consistently race in World Cup competition on skis designed for men. In the video, Vonn skis a more aggressive line than Svindal, entering several turns earlier and lower to the snow. Where Vonn loses ground is at the exit, which is mainly a function of strength. Svindal is six feet three inches, 220 pounds; Vonn is five feet 10 inches, 170 pounds.
Vonn’s guiding principle as a racer, she told me last summer, is to ski like a man, which she meant in both the figurative and the technical sense. In August, U.S. women’s coach Alex Hoedlmoser predicted that Vonn would be a frequent podium finisher on the men’s Europa Cup, where young racers compete before joining the World Cup, and this fall Vonn petitioned the International Skiing Federation (FIS), skiing’s governing body, for permission to compete in an early-season men’s downhill at Alberta’s Lake Louise resort. “If you’re winning everything, you have to push to the next level,” Hoedlmoser said. “The next step is to ski like a guy, and she’s getting closer than anybody else.”
Vonn, 28, has won more World Cup races (57) and more overall titles (four) than any American racer, male or female, and she has done so faster and across a wider range of disciplines than any other skier except Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Pröll. (Moser-Pröll, long retired, is not far ahead.) In a sport where crashes and disqualifications are common, since 2006 Vonn has reached the podium in close to half of her World Cup starts. Last winter, she set a new women’s points record and came within a stone’s throw of the overall mark set by Hermann Maier in 2000, at the height of his success. She has become, without any real debate, not only the best American skier of either gender, but the best women’s skier in the history of the sport.
For casual fans of ski racing, this may come as something of a surprise. Like any skier, Vonn is dependent on the Olympics for U.S. media attention, and her accomplishments on that stage—a gold and a bronze from 2010—are modest, especially in the age of Michael Phelps. When Vonn has made headlines, it has often been to showcase her looks, or to explain her rivalry with Julia Mancuso, or to answer questions about her estrangement from her father, Alan Kildow, or her divorce last fall from Thomas Vonn—or, as was the case last year, to address rumors that she was dating then Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. (She wasn’t.)
For nearly a decade, Vonn has been one of the hardest-working athletes on the World Cup. Much of her early success has been credited to her ex-husband, Thomas, who also served as her coach. Yet, after their marriage imploded last fall, she actually started skiing better. And given the FIS’s new set of rules that make women’s skis straighter and longer—that is, more like men’s—Vonn is expected to gain an even greater edge over her competitors, who are now effectively three years behind her curve. In other words, barring serious injury, it’s entirely possible that Vonn will win more races this season than she ever has before.
Vonn is nine years younger than Swiss racer Didier Cuche, who was winning downhills last spring at 37. She will get at least one more chance to make her name with the Bob Costas crowd at the Sochi Games in 2014, and she will be only 36 by the 2018 Games in South Korea. Should she continue winning 10 races per season for the next few years, by 2015 she will overtake Ingemar Stenmark’s overall record of World Cup wins, which stands at 86. The iconic Swedish sportsman, of course, is widely considered the greatest skier in history.
ON A FRIDAY MORNING in early July, I met Vonn at a gym in a converted garage 40 minutes northwest of Los Angeles. Officially, Vonn lives in Vail, Colorado, but she’s rarely there. This summer, in addition to L.A., she spent time in Austria, New Zealand, Chile, London, and Wisconsin. The gym is popular with the Oakland Raiders, and its walls were plastered with oversize murals of NFL players. Vonn, who was wearing a blue tank top, boy shorts, and running shoes, was in the midst of a core routine when I arrived. After saying hello, she ushered me into a back room where I watched as she rotated through a series of leg lifts, planks, mountain climbers, and medicine-ball wall sits.
About 20 minutes later, Vonn paused to change the playlist on her iPod, which was connected to the gym’s stereo system, from pop (Calvin Harris) to a mix of hip-hop (T. I. and Jurassic 5). DJ privileges are doled out by seniority, Vonn said, or, as she elaborated, smiling slyly, “how good you are at your sport.” New England Patriots defensive end Andre Carter showed up around noon, and a group of Raiders had just left. At least while I was there, Vonn’s iPod reigned.
Vonn’s off-season fitness routine is famously intense. Last summer her longtime Austrian trainer, Martin Hager, had her on a regimen that called for as many as seven hours in the gym each day, six days a week. After core, she moved into the main gym and did four sets of squats, then stood atop two step-up boxes to do lunges with a weighted bar and added resistance from a pair of bungee cords secured to the floor. Vonn is lean, with wide, muscled shoulders, and she is both taller and heavier than most of the women she skis against. On hard days, she’ll intersperse the power and strength work with an hour of riding on a stationary bike. “That volume and intensity isn’t duplicated by anyone else on the World Cup,” Steve Porino, an NBC commentator and former racer, said.
Somewhat improbably, Vonn is not a naturally gifted or an especially coordinated athlete. As a child growing up in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, she was a mediocre soccer player and struggled with figure skating. “One of the first times I met Lindsey, we were playing kickball, and she could not kick the ball at home plate,” Stacey Cook, a U.S. Ski Team downhill specialist, said. “She just kept missing it.”
Vonn’s maiden name is Kildow, and she has four younger siblings—sister Karin and triplets Laura, Reed, and Dillon. In Kildow family lore, it’s Karin, not Lindsey, who is the most talented skier. (Vonn’s father was a three-time national junior downhill champion.) Erich Sailer, a legendary junior coach who taught Vonn at Buck Hill, the 310-vertical-foot bunny hill outside Minneapolis where she learned to ski when she was two, said that her first season in gates was disappointing. “She was slow,” said Sailer, “and I felt sorry for her father.” (Sailer’s exact words, according to Alan Kildow, were that he was sorry Kildow had “a turtle for a daughter.”)
Vonn learned quickly, however. “She’s very observant,” Sarah Schleper, a former U.S. slalom skier, said. “She watches what people are doing and she emulates them. You don’t even know she’s doing it.” Vonn worked harder than everybody else as well. At Buck Hill, which is also the home turf of former World Cup slalom star Kristina Koznick, Vonn was tireless. “I got more slalom gates in than any kid in the country by, I don’t know, tens of thousands,” Vonn said. When Vonn was 12, the family moved to Vail so she could ski on bigger mountains. By the time she reached the U.S. development team at 14, she had more mileage, meaning time spent in gates, than perhaps any other teenager in the country.
Vonn is also especially good at gliding, or skiing smoothly through flat and straight sections, and a large number of her early World Cup titles came on what are generally considered gliders’ courses. Gliding is both a physical gift and a reflection of temperament: in downhill, skiers hurtle down frozen, water-injected mountains at upwards of 80 miles per hour, and crashes, when they happen, are often grievous. Skiers who stay calm go faster. “Some people, as they pick up speed, become more apprehensive, and they don’t let their skis and boots follow the terrain,” said Vonn’s father.
Vonn has said that she does not experience fear, which is rare even among downhillers. On tour, Vonn competes in all four of the World Cup disciplines: slalom, giant slalom, super-G, and downhill. But her specialty is the speed events, super-G and downhill. Because the gates are spaced farther apart, there are fewer turns to slow skiers down, and the courses reward racers willing to take big risks. They’re the events you most often see televised.
Vonn’s affection for speed isn’t confined to the slopes, which is why her coaches don’t allow her to bike outside anymore. “I crashed a few times,” she said as she settled in for another hour on the stationary bike in L.A., motioning to a patchy scar on her right shoulder from a cycling wreck. “I ski fast, I bike fast, I drive fast.” Audi, one of Vonn’s main sponsors, provides her with yearly leases on a black A8 L sedan in L.A. and two Q7 SUVs, one in Vail and another to drive between races in Europe. “I drove with her down Vail Pass once and she was like, ‘Watch, I can drive the whole pass without putting on the brakes,’” Schleper said. “She had her line, and she did it like a downhill.”
Vonn’s interactions with the media are usually well managed, and I expected to find her attended by Hager and at least one PR representative. But Hager was in Austria, and Vonn’s handlers never materialized. Initially, this seemed like a good thing. But after the music drowned out a couple of attempts at conversation, I could only take notes and watch Vonn work out. After two hours I began to feel like a creep, and we made plans to meet for lunch later in the afternoon.
IN EUROPE, VONN IS recognized everywhere and treated like a rock star by the press. But in the United States she is still largely anonymous. After finishing her workout, Vonn showered and met me at a natural-foods café in Westlake Village. She arrived wearing heels, a flowing white dress, dark eyeliner, and dangling crystal earrings, and looked very much like a celebrity athlete. Nobody did a double take when she walked into the café, and when I asked, she said that the last time she was spotted in public was by a man and his young son at a Target.
Over a leisurely lunch, we chatted about cars (she’s a bit of a motorhead), Roger Federer (a friend), and learning to speak German (she’s fluent). The conversation faltered only when I asked her about the men in her life. Before our meeting, her PR team had told me that she couldn’t say much about her relationship with Thomas Vonn, because of a nondisclosure clause in their divorce settlement. And although she had recently reconciled with her father, she fended off my most probing questions. “I don’t think it’s fair to my family to put all our problems out in the open for everyone to see,” she said.
This wasn’t surprising. Over the course of her career, Vonn has become media savvy. Knowing that, it’s easy to view her petition earlier this fall to compete against men on the World Cup circuit as a publicity stunt. Raising the idea elevated her profile at a highly opportune time—roughly a year before the Olympics, when ski racing wouldn’t otherwise blip SportsCenter’s radar.
But racing in the men’s downhill at Lake Louise would have forced Vonn to skip the women’s downhill two days later, because of FIS rules that deny competitors access to the course during the week before the actual race. Given that Vonn is chasing several overall World Cup records this season, forgoing two downhill races would have been a big gamble. Ultimately, Vonn didn’t have to make a tough decision. In early November, the FIS denied her petition outright, offering instead to let her race as a forerunner—a skier who opens the course for the competitors but doesn’t get timed. (Vonn said no.) Allowing Vonn to race with the men would have been an easy opportunity for FIS to showcase the sport, but the organization is famously inflexible, and it made no attempt to sugarcoat the rejection. An FIS spokeswoman told reporters, “One gender is not entitled to participate in races of the other, and exceptions will not be made.”
The gambit wasn’t all bluster. If there’s any course on which Vonn might achieve parity with men, it’s Lake Louise. She has won 11 of the last 16 women’s downhills there, and the men’s course, which is longer and has fewer turns than the women’s, would have played to her advantage as a glider. “I think the initial response was, Oh crap, I better not get beat,” Steven Nyman, a downhiller on the U.S. Ski Team, said. “It would’ve created a lot of hype. I think she could’ve competed with the boys if the conditions were right.”
Vonn has also used the media to help manage her tumultuous relationship with her father. Several of her former coaches said that Kildow was far more involved in her ski career than most parents, that his presence could be distracting and his bellowing at races sometimes brought her to tears. Lindsey started dating Thomas Vonn, who is nine years her senior, in 2002, when she was just 18. Kildow didn’t approve. At lunch she said that her relationship with Thomas “was one of the main disputes” but that she and Kildow “had a lot of issues, a lot of disputes.”
In 2005, in a piece in the Denver Post, Vonn publicly cut ties with her father. John Meyer, the reporter who wrote the story, said that he suspects she made the news public because Kildow had shown up unannounced at the 2005 World Championships in Bormio, Italy. Meyer and others familiar with the situation believe that Vonn was trying to keep Kildow from attending the 2006 Olympic Games. “She wanted that story out there for a little extra pressure on Dad so he would stay away,” he said. Kildow complied, and he was not invited to the Vonns’ wedding in 2007.
THOMAS VONN IS A former U.S. Ski Team giant-slalom specialist known for obsessing over his gear. With Thomas as her coach, Lindsey paid more attention to equipment than any other woman on the World Cup. In the winter of 2008, shortly before she won her first overall title, they began testing men’s skis while training in Austria. She borrowed Ted Ligety’s GS setup and soon realized that she had been overpowering her old equipment; her skis started to feel floppy in comparison. Eventually, she decided to adopt men’s skis full time.
In addition to being straighter and longer than women’s skis, men’s skis are also stiffer, all of which makes them faster and more difficult to turn than women’s. But once on edge, they remain engaged in the fall line longer, saving the skier from skidding through to the transition and losing speed. In part because of her weight, but mainly because of her height, Vonn is able to aggressively articulate her hips and send enormous pressure to her outside ski, which is called creating good angles, and she can flex men’s skis in a way that virtually no other woman can.
Until last fall, Vonn was the only woman on the U.S. team who regularly took notes about her equipment in testing, and she works closely with her ski tech, Heinz Haemmerle, who is regarded as the best on the World Cup. A few years ago, she and Thomas arranged to have Red Bull fly Australian biomechanist Andy Walshe to New Zealand to shoot ultrahigh-speed, high-definition video as Vonn selected skis for the upcoming season. The footage examined the interplay between snow conditions and various combinations of Vonn’s boots, bindings, and skis, Walshe said, and “showed things, in skiing, never seen in that resolution.”
“They were always trying to push equipment to the limit, and this is where Thomas was really relevant in her success,” ex–World Cup racer Steve Porino said. But Thomas’ obsession with gear, however helpful, could also be detrimental. “He was the type of athlete where his equipment had to be set up just perfect,” Doug Williams, one of Thomas’ former coaches, said. “He was very good with it, but he could also be too particular.”
In the fall of 2010, Vonn opened the season with a series of disappointing results in slalom and GS, and Germany’s Maria Reisch, a longtime friend of Vonn’s and her main rival, opened a large lead in the overall standings. It was the first time in three years that Vonn found herself in a real battle, and she and Thomas became convinced that her boots, made by Head, were the problem. Thomas responded by doubling down on testing, pushing Vonn to ski hard on rest days and lugging 25 pairs of boots between races.
In March of that year, according to people familiar with the events, the couple briefly abandoned Head’s model in favor of an older boot from Lange, which Lindsey and Thomas repainted to match Head’s white-and-yellow color scheme. Reisch got wind of the alleged swap and in the German press accused Vonn of lying about the switch. It was a hard accusation to stomach coming from a friend, and one that could have endangered Vonn’s contract with Head. The two stopped speaking.
When I asked Vonn about the controversy, she denied using repainted Langes and said that she had switched to a new model from Head. But in October 2011, Reisch told the Associated Press that the pair had resumed speaking, in part, she said, because Vonn had “acknowledged certain things.”
Meanwhile, the Vonns’ marriage, which had been intense from its earliest days, began to fray. “You could tell that Thomas was more of a coach to her than a husband,” Laura Kildow, Vonn’s sister, said. “He never wanted to stop testing, and there comes a point when it’s too much,” Vonn said. “He wasn’t good at finding that point.” According to Laura, Lindsey began to seriously consider separating in the late summer of 2011, and by early November, she had reconnected with her father, a lawyer, to ask for legal advice.
Vonn informed her husband that she wanted a divorce in November 2011, a few days before she was scheduled to race in slalom and GS at a World Cup event in Aspen. Thomas, according to several people familiar with the events, was caught by surprise and reacted badly. Before she delivered the news, Vonn allegedly tried to download the boot settings Thomas had meticulously recorded. Thomas considered this theft of his intellectual property, and sources say he responded by sanding down the base plates and sabotaging the stiffness settings and cuff angles on Vonn’s slalom and GS boots, destroying months’ worth of careful calibration. (Thomas Vonn declined to comment for this story.) Vonn and Haemmerle scrambled to readjust her boots as best they could, but she finished 12th in GS and, citing back pain, withdrew from slalom the following day. On November 27, she announced their divorce to the media.
The Vonns legally separated this past August, but at press time they remained prohibited from discussing their marriage pending a settlement. Sorting out the split has been complicated. They did not sign a prenuptial agreement, and Thomas had also been acting as Vonn’s financial adviser and manager.
In addition to Head and Audi, Vonn is also sponsored by Red Bull, Rolex, Vail Resorts, Under Armour, and several companies not generally associated with racing, including Kohl’s department stores. In 2010, following the Olympics, several reports pegged Vonn’s annual income at $6 million, which she told me was reasonably close to the actual figure. In May, Vonn paid $1.7 million in overdue taxes and penalties after the IRS placed a lien on a property the couple owns in eastern Nevada, and Vonn has elsewhere described the divorce proceedings as “a mess.”
AFTER WITHDRAWING FROM THE Aspen slalom in November 2011, Vonn got back on the snow in Lake Louise a few weeks later for the year’s first downhill. She won, touching off a four-race win streak. “I felt like I had something to prove,” Vonn said. “I was really hurt that people doubted me, doubted I could do it on my own. I wanted to prove them wrong.”
Several people on the ski team said that Vonn was happier and much easier to be around, and she reconnected with many of the other women as the season progressed, including longtime rival Julia Mancuso. Said Haemmerle, “It makes it easier if Thomas isn’t around anymore, and for me, she is more open.” Vonn went on to have the most dominant season of her career, with the largest winning margin since the introduction of the modern points system in 1991.
In July, I asked Alan Kildow whether it was a relief to have Vonn back in his life. “You can say that,” he said, deadpanning. “Sometimes what your children want and what you think is good for them are at odds. She wanted to do her thing, and one day she woke up and came back.” For Vonn, it’s not that black and white. While she’s happy to have reconciled their relationship, she also noted that there was still work to be done. “We didn’t settle all our problems, but we’re starting to mend things. It’s not easy—we didn’t talk for six years. But we’re both older. And family is family.”
Earlier this fall, on October 27, at the season-opening GS in Soelden, Austria, Vonn raced for the first time on the new equipment. It did not go well: after a slow first run, she struck a gate on run two and crashed out. As good as Vonn is, her mechanics are not perfect, and her flaws are most evident in GS and slalom, the most technically demanding events. She often struggles on left-footed turns, where she is prone to leaning into the fall line and losing her downhill edge. Improving in either event would mean focusing less on speed, which Vonn is reluctant to do. She likes downhill too much.
The next few months proved even more eventful. In November, a stomach ailment landed her in the hospital. She recovered well enough to win both downhills and the super-G at Lake Louise in early December, the second year in a row she clinched the hat trick. Vonn called the weekend a “testament to why I want to race with the men” and later told CNN that she was looking into legal action against the FIS. Then, after some uncharacteristic falls in Europe, Vonn announced that she hadn’t fully recovered from her intestinal illness and would be flying home to rest for a few weeks. If she misses more than a handful of races, she’ll jeopardize her chances of defending her overall title. But don’t count her out just yet. “I try to have a short memory,” she told me. “And no matter what happens in my personal life, skiing is the one constant, the one thing I can rely on. It’s my job to stay focused on what I have to do. And that’s ski.”
“When she was eight, she had to write an essay about what she was going to be when she grew up,” Kildow said. “She wrote that she was going to be the greatest skier of all time. For her, it’s not like, ‘Oh wow, here I am.’ It’s ‘This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I was meant to do. This is who I am.’”