"I'm voicing my opinion for the safety of the athletes. Not everyone sees it that way."
Alpine ski racing is a sport of tiny increments, but it’s also a grueling slog—Groundhog Day with deadly pitch, bulletproof ice, and Germans. Lindsey Vonn, 26, the most decorated American racer of all time, just completed an especially arduous campaign in which she suffered a slew of injuries yet fought her way back to within one race of winning her fourth World Cup overall title in a row. (She won this year’s World Cup downhill, super-G, and combined titles.) That one race, a giant slalom in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, the final race of the season, was abruptly canceled due to cruddy snow, which meant that her close friend and biggest rival, Maria Riesch of Germany, snuck away with the crystal globe. Vonn—part pinup, part grade grubber, but all badass—was not pleased. She is competitive, no question, but the ski world often pays as close attention to her various contretemps—with her estranged father, Alan Kildow; with her teammate Julia Mancuso; with the sport’s governing International Ski Federation (FIS)—as it does to her dominating performances on the hill. Nick Paumgarten caught Vonn this spring in Los Angeles, with her husband and coach, retired American racer Thomas Vonn, nearby.
PAUMGARTEN: This was a pretty brutal season for you physically: a black eye, a concussion, what else?
VONN: In January, I had a partially torn MCL in my left knee, then I had the concussion right before the world championships. Then, in the last training run at the World Cup finals in downhill, I partially tore my right MCL. It’s definitely been a tough season, but it’s not unusual. I’m taking time off to recover so that when the next season comes around, I can be ready. But it’s hard to stay away from the gym, I’m not gonna lie.
How’s your head? Do you have any lingering effects?
It’s good. I took that week off after the downhill championship, and that really helped. I needed time away.
Did you actually do the whole concussion thing and sit in a dark room?
I went to a wellness hotel in Austria and shut the blinds and didn’t do anything. It was bizarre to be in a hotel room watching the world championships on TV. It was the worst feeling. I hated it. But the dark-room, low-stimulus, not-raising-your-heart-rate plan worked.
How did the concussion feel?
When I was out doing normal things, I felt fine. But during a ski run, I was in a fog. I couldn’t focus. I would start out fine, but the farther down the course I got, the more I had difficulty. I’d never had a feeling like that before.
You criticized the race organizers for making the course too icy. Do you think some courses are too dangerous?
It depends. For the world championships, it was too icy. It was like looking into a mirror—you could see your reflection. Even the men were complaining about it. It was like they fire-hosed the entire slope; you could have skated down it with hockey skates. I’m voicing my opinion for the safety of the athletes. Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way.
Right, you had that quote where you said, “I wasn’t trying to be a drama queen.”
I was putting the blame on the FIS, and it’s their job to control the snow conditions. If I don’t voice my opinion, then who will? It’s tough when all the other athletes are coming to me, voicing their concerns, and then when I go to bat for them, they don’t stand behind me. That was very frustrating.
While we’re on the subject of the FIS, the final weekend in Switzerland—when there was going to be this showdown between you and Maria Riesch—they canceled the giant slalom. What the hell happened?
That’s a good question. I don’t entirely know. It was definitely bad weather. I felt like there was a great opportunity to really showcase our sport. There was this great buildup to the last race, and it was winner-take-all. I felt like that fell flat on its face. We missed a major opportunity.
Do you think there was anything fishy in it? From where I sat, it looked like those European officials in the FIS were protecting one of their own.
From what the rules say, they played by the rules. But there were definitely some interesting things going on. The super-G was canceled Thursday morning. It was bad weather. Then the next day, the slalom—it was rotten snow, I mean terrible, worse than the super-G, and awful conditions—and I’ve never seen so much effort by the FIS to pull off a race. They had about two or three hundred course crew boot-packing; they had a fire hose out, spraying the entire course and throwing chemicals on it. They were working for four or five hours. Then they had the course set by Maria’s coach, Christian Schwaiger, and they didn’t let us reinspect. They didn’t reset the course, and we ran two runs on the same course. I’ve never seen that done before. Then [on Saturday] the giant slalom was canceled at 7:20 a.m. with absolutely no work done. My coaches were trying to talk to the FIS and say let’s get the course crew out here, let’s put in the effort to try to get the race done, and they just shut them down completely.
You’re preaching to the choir, sister. I wanted to see the race!
It’s hard not to get fired up.
Are you still bitter about it?
No, I’m not bitter about it. The decision is over. Maria won; I’m happy for her, she deserved it.
So Julia Mancuso—do you guys really hate each other?
[Laughs] No, we get along. We’re teammates, and we support each other. Obviously, we are competing with each other, but we compete with everyone on the hill. I’d say our relationship is good. We’ve been competing since we were little kids. I feel like we’re in a good groove.
Where do things stand between you and your father at this point?
I don’t really want to talk about my dad.
Are you speaking?
No, I haven’t talked to him.
My father was in Colorado skiing this winter and happened to ride the lift with your dad and do a few runs with him.
He said your father has a very big head—like physically, literally.
He does. Physically, his head is ginormous.
What’s in store for you this summer?
In June, I’m going to Europe, to Salzburg, to work with my trainers, and then I’ll go to New Zealand in July and August. Then Chile in September. By October, we’ll start racing.
What about the future? What will you be doing after ski racing?
When I’m done with ski racing, I definitely want to start a family.
What would be your ideal number of kids?
Four, but it’s still up for debate. I come from a family of five, so that was a lot of kids. But then again, I have to have one kid before I can make that call.
I know you enjoy tennis. Have you ever played with Bode Miller?
I haven’t, but my husband does all the time.
How good is Bode?
He’s really good. [Turns to her husband: “Vonn, how good is he?”] He says he’s really good. He’s a high-level player.
It’s funny, ski racing—on the one hand, it’s this game of milliseconds and tiny mistakes, but on the other hand it’s a really long season—exhausting travel, injuries, gear hassles, dealing with the press, foreign languages, foreign food, year-round pain, piling up the points. Do you think of it more as a game of milliseconds or a long haul?
I perceive it definitely as a long haul. Each individual race may come down to two hundredths of a second, but it’s a grueling process to get to that point. The summer months, working out six days a week, six to eight hours a day, and then going to New Zealand and Chile and racing from October until March basically every single weekend. I love it, I really do, but when spring comes around, I like to kick back and relax.
Do you ever get tired of talking about this stuff?
I enjoy it. It’s all good with me.