Read the full article at the New York Times Magazine
On the November day last year when Vail opened for the winter season, the base area was a swarm of skiers and snowboarders, a mass that swelled with the approach of a tall, 25-year-old blonde carrying ski boots and poles. As she walked into the resort’s plaza, a gaggle of young children trotted in her wake, shouting her name. Many of those waiting to board the nearby gondola recognized Lindsey Vonn as well and surged toward her.
Smiling all the while, Vonn parted the crowd with the help of her husband, Thomas, who carried her prized skis. Cellphone cameras were raised overhead and pointed in her direction as Vonn ducked beneath the chain guarding a restricted entry to the gondola. I waited at the top of the entrance, and when Vonn finally stood next to me, she laughed and said, “When I was here as a little girl, it never took that long to walk 50 yards.”
It was not just another day on snow for Vonn. It was, in fact, the rarest of occasions. The most decorated American female alpine racer ever was going to ski outside a race course, something she almost never does. We had arranged to ski together and shoot a video, an appointment that was years in the making, if not actually going all the way back to the first time I met Vonn, in 2002.
On the ride up the mountain, Vonn looked out the gondola windows at the trails packed with a joyous opening-day crowd and talked about how she once skied the same slopes with her brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. At the summit, however, we did not head for familiar routes. Instead, snowmobiles escorted us to an isolated, otherwise unopened trail on the other side of the mountain.
“I haven’t skied like this in a while — you know, like, alone,” Vonn said, clicking into her ski bindings. “There’s usually so many people everywhere.” Then she pushed off down the empty trail. It wasn’t long before she was at high speed. Chunks of the mountain disappeared fast under her feet, but her movements remained smooth and elegant, and I recalled how Jim Tracy, a United States ski-team coach, described the first time he saw Vonn ski. “She’s hauling down the mountain, her skis probably going 60,” Tracy told me, “but the rest of her was hardly moving. It was like watching water flow down a hill.”
Vonn eventually came to stop on a plateau in the trail. “Pretty quiet up here,” she said. We were able to look out over Vail, where Vonn has a pricey condo and where an elaborate rally in her honor would be held later that day. The theme of the event, as it has been in dozens of public appearances she made in the last year, is Vonn’s pursuit of five gold medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Hers is one of the signature American faces of these Games. No American alpine skier has ever won more than two Olympic medals in a career, let alone in a single Olympics.
And so, as it usually does, the subject of her quest came up. This winter, she truly never skis alone. Expectations await around every bend in every trail. “Five gold medals?” Vonn said, staring into the distance. “Well, it’s possible. But I haven’t won even one Olympic medal yet. I’d like to win the first one and let’s see from there. But people are getting pretty amped up. Kids yell to me, ‘Lindsey, win a couple of gold medals for me.’ ”
We have been through this before. Four years ago, the skier Bode Miller was expected to win multiple gold medals at the Winter Games in Turin. Instead, he won none, and his Olympics were portrayed as a failure borne of apathy and late-night barhopping.
Vonn is continually compared with Miller, and she has learned to politely deflect the predictable questions, saying she will try not to let anyone down. Having spent much of her childhood in Apple Valley, Minn., Vonn is “Minnesota nice.” But privately, she’ll reveal that having to constantly talk about Miller’s Olympian misadventure irks her. I found that out at lunch with her in New York last year, when I brought it up. She put down her sandwich and nearly snorted. “I know what I’m not,” Vonn said, “and I am definitely not him.” The conversation drifted away, but a minute later, she steered it back. “He was partying nights before Olympic races,” she said, her voice rising. “What was he thinking? I can tell you, I’m not going to be the one that says it doesn’t matter if I win an Olympic medal. I know what that means to me and to the country. The Olympics are huge.”
For the rest of this incredible article, including a beautiful in-depth look at what it takes to help and athlete reach her best, click here.