The Fastest Woman on the Planet

With more than 57 World Cup wins and four overall titles, Lindsey Vonn has already established herself as the greatest women’s ski racer in history. Too bad they won’t let her take on the boys.

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    Photo: Sheryl Nields

Lindsey Vonn: Outside Cover Shoot

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Lindsey Vonn.

Lindsey Vonn.

Lindsey Vonn races at Ofterschwang, Germany, on March 3, 2012.

Lindsey Vonn celebrates with her team after her 50th world cup victory at Garmisch, Germany, on February 4, 2012.

“If you’re winning everything, you have to push to the next level. The next step is to ski like a guy, and she’s getting closer than anybody else.”

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.’”

Peter Vigneron is a former associate editor for Outside Online.

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