In part two of our portrait of ski superstar Lindsey Vonn, we discover how a fateful meeting helped to open new doors and give her career an unexpected boost.
2005–6: A new coaching team
“When Red Bull invited me to be part of their Athletes Special Project,” says Lindsey, “I didn’t need to think twice. I had the feeling this was going to be my big chance.” The team, headed by legendary Austrian coach Robert Trenkwalder, turned Lindsey’s life completely upside down, systematically transforming the then-20-year-old into the world’s most professional skier with an entirely new training program specifically tailored to her needs. German lessons were designed to make her day-to-day life in the major Alpine skiing countries easier, and there were targeted fitness and physio sessions during the competitive season. “At first, I would question every new suggestion,” she says. “During power training, for example, I wanted to know the exact benefits of each individual exercise. Gradually, I saw my strength and performance improve, so my confidence in the program grew.”
Direct from summer training in Oregon and Chile, she dashed out of the gates in December to capture the victory in the Downhill events of Lake Louise, Canada and Val d’Isère. The traditional award of this race in France is a cow, which she happily received. The cow is appropriately named Olympe, and Lindsey still keeps the pet on a farm near the US Ski Team’s training base in Austria. Lindsey was even more tempted by another prize, namely an Olympic medal. “Last time I went to the Olympics, I was basically there for the experience, and it was really fun,” Lindsey recalls. 2006 was a different story. Heading for Turin, she was one of the US women ski team’s biggest hopes. But, unfortunately, this would not be her time. During a practice run, she had a crash. She was only shaken, and was released from the hospital with a clean bill of health; Lindsey hadn’t come this far not to race, but she finished eighth in Downhill, seventh in Super-G and 14th in the Slalom, impressive in view of what had been a harrowing crash.
“That happened for a reason,” she says. “It was a missed opportunity, but it gave me the fuel and motivation that I needed.” And need it she did: Lindsey crashed again in Austria, in October 2006. “I had a bit of bone bruising. It hasn’t totally cleared up, but it’s not preventing me from skiing,” she commented at the time. Apparently not: she bounced back to win the Downhill at Lake Louise (a place where she always seems to shine) with second places in another Downhill and Super-G. A victory followed in the Val d’Isère Downhill, one in the San Sicario/Sestrière Super-G and six other podiums. Two of the most valuable she celebrated in Are: at the World Championships, Lindsey won two silver medals, in the Downhill and Super-G. The season ended, as usual, with an injury from a fall. This time it was a pulled tendon…
“Setbacks motivate me,” Lindsey stressed again. And she proved her point by dominating the speed disciplines in the 2007–8 season. One reason for this was the highly professional preparation as part of the Athletes Special Project: “The advantage is that we don’t have to look after an entire team, instead we are able to focus on individual athletes,” explains head of the Red Bull ASP, Robert Trenkwalder. “During training, our specialists monitor every relevant parameter, allowing them precisely to tailor the scope and intensity to Lindsey’s needs.” This especially applies to periods of training following injury, when a dedicated team of experts works with the fitness coach and physio to get the balance between recovery and training exactly right. It’s not unusual for Lindsey to be in the gym at 6am, carefully warming up in preparation for the stresses which the body will soon have to deal with. “Lindsey is driven by winning,” says Trenkwalder, “which, on the one hand, is reflected in extremely professional self-discipline. On the other hand, she wants to give 100 percent every time, all of the time. Unfortunately, it can result in her crashing out and injuring herself unnecessarily.”
But this year, Lindsey had her ambition well under control. Combined with – so it appeared at the time – the form of her life, Lindsey won the Super Combination in St Anton and five downhill races – the one in Lake Louise (of course), as well as the brutal test of courage in St Anton and the classics in Cortina, Sestrière and Crans Montana. The series of victories not only garnered her the top spot in the Downhill World Cup, but also fulfilled her childhood dream: her first victory in the Overall World Cup. To complement her perfect season, Lindsey tied the knot with boyfriend Thomas Vonn on September 29, 2007 – happiness in her private life allowing her to muster twice as much energy for skiing.
2008–9: All-round champion
“Thanks to Thomas, I can focus entirely on my sport,” says Lindsey. “He comes to all my races, he can console me, motivate me or take my mind off things when it’s not going so well,” she enthuses. Because Thomas also used to be a ski racer, not only does he understand the business, but he is also able to give Lindsey valuable tips – especially in the technical disciplines. “At first, I found it difficult to read courses and understand slopes,” she says, “and Thomas was a huge help when it came to inspecting the courses.”
Lindsey, accompanied by the Athletes Special Projects team and the speed coaches of the US ski team, such as Alex Hödlmoser, had her sights firmly set on one ambitious goal: to become an all-round winner. Whereas her peers tend to specialize in one or two disciplines, Lindsey racked up nine wins and 16 podiums in four disciplines last year. She bagged her maiden Slalom victory in Levi, comfortably winning the Overall World Cup, the Downhill and the Super-G World Cup at the end of the season. But her record in the other disciplines was also impressive: in the World Cup super-combined, she finished second, finishing third in the World Cup Slalom and eighth in the World Cup Giant Slalom. By contrast, the World Championships in Val d’Isère would turn out to be an emotional rollercoaster: Lindsey won gold in the Downhill and Super-G, but seriously injured herself on a broken champagne bottle during the victory celebrations. Red Bull ASP flew Lindsey to Innsbruck by private jet, where she underwent tendon surgery and was fitted with a splint. But her World Championship chance had come and gone: Lindsey had to skip the Giant Slalom, and after sensationally clocking the second-fastest time in the Slalom, she skied out in the second run. She had already been disqualified from the super-combined for splitting a gate. Infuriating, yes – but perhaps it will give Lindsey an extra push ahead of the forthcoming season, especially with the next major event with medals up for grabs being the Olympic Games in Whistler, Canada – which has always been Lindsey’s long-term goal. “I’ll be training harder than ever for this season,” she announces. “’Cause if you work hard,” she says, “it will pay off in the end.”