“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.