Lindsey Vonn Needs a Nap, But First She Is Going To Become the Best Ski Racer of All Time
Stenmark’s record—86 World Cup wins—long seemed unbreakable. Now America’s celebrity speed queen needs just 11 more to do it. It’s not just doable, it’s probable. Maybe even this year.
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Lindsey Vonn is having a tough morning. Leo, one of her three dogs, woke her up at 5:30 and she couldn’t get back to sleep. It’s a quarter to ten now, and I’ve just arrived at Vonn’s house in Vail, a 6,600-square-foot wood and stone construction on the banks of Gore Creek. Family photos are scattered about, and her 20 World Cup crystal globes rest on shelves above the fireplace mantel. An Olympic gold medal is around here somewhere. I’ve barely had a chance to say hello when I hear Vonn shouting from down the hallway.
“Lucy!” she says, addressing her newest and smallest addition, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel. “Did you do this?” I peer around the corner and see Vonn crouched down, pointing toward a spot on the floor. She’s wearing a black T-shirt and tights; her distinctive blond hair dangles over her shoulders. She pops up, comes tearing toward me, and goes straight into the kitchen. “Sorry,” she says as she blows past. “We’ll get going as soon as I clean up this puke.”
The chaos and sleep deprivation are getting to her a bit, and she’d love to just shut down for a while. But that’s not happening. It can’t. It’s August, and Vonn is headed to the gym this morning, and the workout she’s doing is one of the most important she’ll do all summer. Over the past few years, when she’s been healthy, Vonn has been the most dominant ski racer on the World Cup. The problem is that she’s been hurt a lot. Last winter, for the third time in four years, she ended her season prematurely, this time due to three fractures in her right knee. The training she’s about to do was added to her routine this summer to make her joints more durable.
Vonn, 32, is hoping it helps her win at least 11 races on the World Cup tour this season. That would give her a total of 87 victories over the course of her career, breaking the current mark held by Swede Ingemar Stenmark, who dominated the sport in the ’70s and ’80s. The record would make her the greatest ski racer ever to live—at least that’s what many people think, though the notion that a woman could claim that title has created a sexist buzz within the ski world. And if that’s not enough to raise the ire of chauvinists, Vonn will soon lodge a petition with the International Ski Federation (FIS) to race against the men. She made the same request in 2012 but was rebuffed by FIS, who said, “One gender is not entitled to participate in races of the other, and exceptions will not be made.” This time, however, she won’t take no for an answer, and she threatens legal action if FIS doesn’t yield.
Her house now vomit-free, we hop in her Audi Q7 and start driving toward her gym, 20 minutes away in Minturn. She bops her head to Rihanna’s “Sex with Me,” intermittently pausing to review her week’s schedule with Alex Bunt, her personal trainer and—it seems—personal assistant, who’s riding shotgun.
Due to her victories, glamorous good looks, and high-profile relationship with Tiger Woods, Vonn’s celebrity has transcended the world of skiing, and everybody wants a piece. That’s put a lot of demands on her time, and she’s spent this off-season bouncing between doing sponsor events with Under Armour, working on a book (Strong Is the New Beautiful, released in October; essentially a nutrition and exercise book for women), shooting a commercial for Reese’s that ran during the Summer Olympics, posing in body paint for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, filming an episode of Bear Grylls’s show Running Wild, and partying with other high-profile pros at places like the Kentucky Derby and her L.A. home’s rooftop (where she played cornhole with NBA all-star Rajon Rondo and mingled with Entourage actor Jeremy Piven). “I like it,” she says of the hustle as we make our way toward Minturn. “But it’s exhausting.”
“You have the thing with Vail tomorrow,” says Bunt, reminding Vonn that she’s attending an event with Vail Resorts. “Then they want to do photos.”
“OK,” says Vonn, sounding a bit exasperated. “That works. As long as I get my nap.”
Vonn walks into the Minturn Fitness Center, throws her right leg up on a stationary bike, and begins massaging her kneecap. “Sorry,” she says to me. “There’s going to be some swearing.” She continues kneading, trying to break up scar tissue in preparation for her workout, which is a twice-weekly series of stretches and isolation exercises that cause little-used muscles to fire, creating stability around her banged-up joints. The regimen was designed for her by Tito Ramirez, a physical therapist in California who mainly works with NFL players, and she hates it. “I’d rather be throwing around weights,” she says as she lowers herself onto a foam roller, stretching her arms over her head.
“Lean back,” says Bunt as he pushes her deeper into the stretch.
“It hurts,” says Vonn, before grunting out one of those promised expletives.
“Good hurt?” Bunt asks.
Vonn furrows her brow at him. “We need to keep her strong,” Bunt says to me, pointing out that Vonn still lifts weights and rides bike intervals. “But how much stronger does she have to be? She’s the best in the world. It’s more important that we keep her there.”
Vonn wasn’t always strong. Alan and Linda Kildow moved their family (Vonn has two sisters and two brothers) from Burnsville, Minn., to Vail in 1998 so that their precocious daughter could get better training. But Vonn was tall (about five-foot-eight), skinny, and weak, built far differently from the prototypical ski racer, who is compact and bound with fast-twitch muscles. “Still, we knew right away that we had a high-level talent,” says Reid Phillips, Vonn’s coach at Ski Club Vail. “My boss told me that if I screwed it up, I’d be fired.”
It was Phillips’s job to help bulk her up and teach her how to use her height to her advantage. “She figured out how to create really big angles,” says Phillips. In other words, Vonn learned to leverage her stature. By angulating her hip into the hill, she used her length to create tremendous force against her downhill ski. The result was a deeper, smoother arc than most of her peers could muster.
The strength training paid dividends too. By the time she was 15, she had gained 15 pounds of muscle and was named to the U.S. Ski Team. She struggled her first few years on the World Cup, barely cracking the top 30. But as she continued to gain brawn, filling out her five-foot-10, 160-pound frame, her results improved. By 2008, she won her first of four overall World Cup titles. “That’s what separates her from the rest of the women,” says Steven Nyman, the top male downhiller on the U.S. Ski Team. “She’s so strong that she can hold a lower, more aerodynamic position.”
That strength also allows her to ski on men’s skis, which are stiffer and harder to turn but offer much more stability. Consequently, she’s able to ski more aggressively, which Vonn believes gives her a huge advantage over the rest of the field. “I’m willing to risk everything,” she says. “I’m slightly crazy and I don’t get scared. If the weather is bad or if there are a lot of big jumps, it makes a lot of women nervous. But it doesn’t affect me. If the light is flat, I know I can count out half the field because they’re scared.”
But her bravura has also contributed to injuries. Right before the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Vonn badly bruised her right shin in a training crash. She still came away from those Games with two medals— gold and bronze—but fell way short of the five-medal prediction made by many as she entered the Games. In 2013 at the World Championships in Schladming, Austria, Vonn hurled herself off a jump in the super G and flew over the handlebars on the landing. She was airlifted by helicopter to the hospital, where she learned she’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL) in her right knee and suffered a tibial plateau fracture. She reinjured her ACL in a wipeout at Copper Mountain just 77 days before the 2014 Sochi Olympics and was forced to miss those Games. Last season came to an end when she was sucked into a compression and fell during a snowy super G in Andorra. At the time, Vonn was leading the overall World Cup standings. She ended up finishing second to Switzerland’s Lara Gut. But Vonn won’t change her approach to racing. “There’s one gear for me and that’s going 100 percent,” she says. “That will never change.”
Over the course of two hours, Vonn moves through other painful-looking stretches and slow-moving contortions, stopping occasionally to take in the Rio Olympics, which are playing on TVs throughout the gym. I ask if she thinks the International Olympic Committee will eliminate the Olympic downhill, something that’s recently been discussed. “No,” she says flatly, seemingly irritated by the question. “It’s the most popular event. That’d be stupid.” Then she drops into a squat while twisting a bar above her head.
“Thirty seconds,” says Bunt. Vonn groans.
“These suck,” she says. But as much as she detests these exercises, she believes they’re working, preparing her to chase Stenmark’s record. As we’re leaving the gym, Vonn reassures me of this. “I’ve already seen huge improvements,” she says. “I’ll be ready.”
We make our way back to Vonn’s house and she climbs on her couch and wraps herself in a big brown blanket. “Lucy!” she shouts. “Are you pissing?!” Lucy has urinated on the blanket.
Vonn jumps up, grabs another blanket, and feels the need to explain to me the genesis of her growing—sometimes naughty—pack. “I got Leo in Florida and it was great because Tiger had dogs so they would play,” she says. “When we split, I got Bear to keep Leo company.” Lucy was added this past winter in Italy as a road companion. The dogs’ antics have even made tabloid headlines. Last November, Vonn tried to break up a squabble between Bear and Leo and ended up with a laceration on her hand. “Lindsey Vonn Ski-Daddles to the Hospital After Nasty Dog Bite,” read TMZ’s cringe-inducing copy.
Vonn, of course, is used to her life—or a version of it—playing out in the tabloids. Her relationship with Woods was weekly fodder, often focusing on the golf star’s prior infidelity and speculating about whether he was also cheating on Vonn. Her 2005 estrangement from her father also drew attention (they’ve since reconciled). And her split from husband Thomas Vonn in 2013 made news when Thomas, upset about the separation, allegedly tampered with his wife’s equipment. Vonn has come to terms with her breakups, saying that she doesn’t regret her marriage to Thomas (“He definitely helped me with my skiing”) and that she’s still friendly with Woods. “We stay in touch,” she says. “It’s not like we talk all the time, but we communicate.”
She also doesn’t let sensational journalism fluster her. After her L.A. party this summer, Star magazine reported that Vonn was harassing Jeremy Piven, who was referring to her as a “stage-five clinger.” “It’s ridiculous and funny,” says Vonn. “Jeremy is a friend of mine. And my friends help keep it light. Their new favorite thing is to call me a ‘stage-five clinger.’” And despite continuous speculation by the yellow press about her love life, Vonn says she’s single. “According to them, I’m dating all of Los Angeles at the same time,” she says. “But it’s hard for me to meet people, and people are intimidated to talk to me.”
That might be a good thing for her career. After her divorce from Thomas Vonn, she went on to win the overall World Cup title. As a single woman last season, she won her record eighth downhill title, despite getting hurt. This year, that solitude might help her focus on her singular goal: 11 wins. “I’m not going for the overall title,” she tells me as she lounges on her couch. That’s a major departure for Vonn from past years, and it proves how serious she is about breaking Stenmark’s record. “To break that record solidifies myself in skiing history,” she says. And though Vonn senses the pushback, she’s not focused on it. “People don’t respect women’s skiing as much as men’s,” she says. “You hear coaches talk about us as though we’re course slippers. But I don’t let it bother me.”
If anything does distract her this season, it might be her impending battle with FIS. Vonn wants to race against the men at the World Cup downhill event in Lake Louise, Alberta, a venue where she’s won a remarkable 18 races. “I want to push myself to the limit and see what my maximum potential is against the fastest skiers in the world,” she says. And she’s confident that she can place in the top 20 among the men. “Maybe as well as 10th,” she says. “When I train with the men, I’m usually beaten to the first gate by over a second. But by the end of the course, I’m usually right there with them—if not beating them.”
Nyman is skeptical. “I think she’d challenge some of the guys in the back,” he says.
“But Lake Louise is her hill. A lot of guys overturn it, and that’s her hill. Guys would be nervous.” And Nyman hopes it happens. “I think it’d be sweet if she ran with us,” he says.
That’s up to FIS (the organization declined to comment for this story)—or it could be up to the courts. “My dad’s a lawyer,” says Vonn. “I don’t really want to go that route. I’d hope they see the benefit in me doing it.” Vonn’s biggest fear is that a protracted court case could cause her to run out of time. She says she’ll probably retire in three years. But if the fight seems to be dragging on that long, she’s open to staging a Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs–style “Battle of the Sexes on Skis.”
Vonn sinks lower in her couch and yawns. It’s about two o’clock, cool and cloudy outside. In a few weeks, she’ll board an airplane to Chile and ski for the first time since March. But first she has more events to attend, more weights to lift, and more dog wrangling to do. “As soon as you leave here, I’m going to sleep,” she says. I get the hint. Being the best ever is tiring, and Lindsey Vonn needs a nap.
Editors Note: Lindsey broker her arm earlier this season but is in hopes of a quick recovery. Read more about the “Battle of the Sexes” for ski racing here.