Buck and beyond
The oldest of five children, Lindsey Vonn (nee Kildow) started skiing at the age of two. Her first carving and gliding happened on the 300-vertical-foot runs at Buck Hill, a "bump" equipped only with a tow rope, near her childhood home in suburban St. Paul, Minn. Under the guidance of coach Erich Sailer, she was encouraged at an early age to find her own technique and to learn how to ski fast, even at a non-mountainous venue. She exhibited such talent on the local level that when she was 10, her father, Alan, mapped out her skiing future. His program was specific, his scope global and his results envisioned reaching the pinnacle of Alpine: an Olympic downhill title in 2006 and the overall World Cup title in 2007. By his impetus, the family picked up and moved to Vail, Colo., so that she could ski on world-class slopes. The move seemed to pay off early on, as she became the first U.S. female to win the prestigious Trofeo Topolino youth competition in Italy, and she won three Junior World Championships medals and two U.S. titles as a teenager.
Picabo, I see you
When Vonn was ten, she met Picabo Street at an autograph signing at Pierce Skate & Ski in Minneapolis. She was rewarded with a close-up look at Street's Olympic downhill silver medal from the 1994 Lillehammer Games and her 1995 World Cup downhill globe, but she had to be introduced to her idol by her parents because she was so nervous. The meeting left such a deep impression on Vonn that her attitude toward skiing changed from "just doing it for fun" to "really wanting to be an Olympian." Her mother framed a photo of the two future Olympic teammates and hung it in her daughter's bedroom. When a 17-year-old Vonn made her Olympic debut at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, Street became a mentor to the young skier. Their bond has grown since then to a strong friendship.
Reigning queen of Alpine
Vonn has already surpassed her childhood heroine's career performance on several levels. Vonn's two overall World Cup titles (2008, 2009), two world championship titles (downhill, super-G) in 2009 and 25 World Cup victories heading into the Olympic season are tops all-time among all U.S. female Alpine skiers. She also became the first U.S. skier since Phil Mahre in 1983 to win the Skieur d'Or (Golden Skier) award as the skier of the year, male or female. What is astonishing is that she remains practically unknown in the United States. Already a huge celebrity in most of Europe, her casual charm, media-friendliness and attractive appearance add to what could be a meteoric rise to notoriety and stardom in the U.S. in the coming months and years.
Toughness in Torino
Expected to contend for medals in two or three events at the 2006 Torino Games, Vonn suffered a horrific crash during downhill training that had some witnesses believing that her injuries could be career-threatening. However, the diagnosis was not as serious as feared, and she was released from the hospital in time to compete in the downhill. Emboldened by the encouraging words of Street, Vonn raced despite immense pain in her legs and back. In five events, she could do no better than seventh place, but her courage and achievement earned her the women's U.S. Olympic Spirit Award.
In 2009, Vonn became only the third female racer - after Switzerland's Anita Walliser (1987) and Sweden's Anja Paerson (2007) - to win gold medals in both speed events (downhill and super-G) at one World Championships. After winning the second gold, she attended a party thrown in her honor by her ski manufacturers. Unable to pop a stubborn cork on a champagne bottle, she handed it to one of the company representatives, who - naturally - used a ski to force it open. The only problem was that he also broke the lip of the bottle. Vonn grabbed the foaming bubbly and cut herself badly on the jagged glass. The next day, she was flown to Austria to have surgery performed for a torn thumb tendon on her right hand. Surprisingly, she returned to action without missing a single race, just as she had at the Olympics. The thumb does not bother her when she is skiing, but she admits jokingly that it does get sore when she signs a lot of autographs.
A cow for each Olympic ring
After winning a World Cup downhill in Val d'Isere, France, in December 2005, Vonn was awarded a bouquet of flowers and a cow. Rather than exchange the cow for $1,200 in prize money, as was the custom and expectation, she kept it, named it Olympe and transported it 10 hours to her friend's farm in Kirchberg, Austria, where it has lived ever since. Olympe gave birth to Sunny in 2007 and Karin (the latter named after her sister) in 2008. Then, in October 2009, Olympe and Sunny each gave birth again, to Don and Shirley (named after her paternal grandparents. In addition to the five bovines, Vonn was presented a goat, Laura (named after her other sister), by the town of Kirchberg following her two gold medals at the Worlds.
Friend, not foe
Vonn's closest friend on the World Cup tour, Germany's Maria Riesch, happens also to be her closest rival, having finished runner-up to her in the 2008-09 World Cup. Separated by only one month, they raced together from an early age. Once, Vonn invited Riesch to her Minnesota home and gave her the "full-blown American experience," including amusement parks, cheese dogs and shopping at the Mall of America. The German returned the favor by inviting Vonn to spend the Christmas holidays at her family's home in Garmisch, something they did for the fifth consecutive year in 2009. On the slopes, the two are like ideal teammates. They regularly give each other advice on courses, equipment - Vonn recently switched to the same ski manufacturer, Head, as Riesch - and race strategies. More importantly, they know how to keep each other relaxed. Vonn speaks fluent German - what she labels "the language of ski racing" - but the lingua franca between the friends has always been English. See photos of how their friendship translates, on and off the slopes.
An avid tennis player, Vonn has a more-than-avid affection for the No. 1 player in men's tennis, Roger Federer. For several years, she dreamt of meeting the humble champion "to the point of obsession." She got her chance in June 2009, taking a day's break from training in Austria to watch live as he won his first career French Open title at Roland Garros. She later talked to him and posed for a photo alongside him. One month later, she returned to center court to watch him win his sixth Wimbledon title and got to celebrate his victory together with members of his extended family. Although Vonn now lists Tiger Woods as the person she would most want to meet, "Roger" occupies second, third and fourth on her list.
As the pilot for the USA-1 bobsled, I broke a 62-year gold medal drought when my sled, the 'Night Train" won the Olympic title at the 2010 Vancouver Games. A degenerative eye condition nearly caused me to quit my sport in 2008, but corrective surgery restored my vision to 20-20.