Olympic Gold Medallist Lindsey Vonn, is one of the most decorated American ski racers in history and widely regarded among the greatest of all time.
Lindsey burst onto the international skiing scene in 1999 at the age of 14 and has since captivated the world with her perseverance and superhuman abilities on the slopes. She’s won four World Cup overall championships—one of only two female skiers to do so with three consecutive titles in 2008, 2009, and 2010, plus another in 2012. Lindsey won the gold medal in downhill at the 2010 Winter Olympics, the first one for an American woman. She also won a record 8 World Cup season titles in the downhill discipline (2008–2013, 2015, 2016), 5 titles in super-G (2009–2012, 2015), and 3 consecutive titles in the combined (2010– 2012). In 2016, she won her 20th World Cup crystal globe title, the overall record for men or women. Her total of 82 World Cup victories is a women’s record.
Lindsey is also a New York Times Bestselling author for her 2016 debut novel Strong Is the New Beautiful: Embrace Your Natural Beauty, Eat Clean, and Harness Your Power and has served as an International Games Ambassador in the 2018 Winter Olympics and is also the founder of the Lindsey Vonn Foundation, which provides scholarships and programming for education, sports, and enrichment programs to give future generations the tools they need to reach their goals and discover their grit within.
In this interview, I speak to Lindsey Vonn, ski racer, Olympic Gold Medallist, entrepreneur, author & philanthropist. We talk about her journey to Olympic Gold, what it takes to succeed, conquer fear, and how she’s now empowering the future generation through the Lindsey Vonn Foundation.
Q: When did you realise ski racing was going to be your everything?
[Lindsey Vonn]: I was only 9 years old, but I loved ski racing. I loved skiing in general, and was lucky enough to meet my idol, Picabo Street. I met her at an autograph signing at a ski shop in Minnesota, and I said that’s it… that’s what I want to do… and this is who I want to be like. From then on, I made ski racing my focus, and my dad helped me create a ten-year plan to make the next Olympics (the first I would be eligible for with my age). I’ve always loved skiing, I’ve always been passionate about skiing, and I’ve never really had a question in my mind about what else I’d be doing in my life.
Q: What did skiing ‘give’ you in those early years?
[Lindsey Vonn]: Skiing gave me purpose, and a goal. As a kid, there are so many distractions, and so many different paths to take. I saw a lot of my friends, who were perhaps more talented than I was, without the same goals and determination- and it caused them to veer off course. Skiing mad things really clear for me – if something wasn’t going to bring me success on the slopes, then I ought not to be doing it. Even at that young age, I was able to differentiate where I wanted to go and what the right decisions were on that path – and for kids, that’s important. You have to give them something to focus on. Today, with social media – and even given the positives social media can bring – the distraction and negativity around kids is huge. Sports really helps kids – and it definitely helped me.
Q: What was the genesis of your decision to create a foundation?
[Lindsey Vonn]: It all started from my experience with Picabo- what I don’t always talk about however is that the day I met Picabo, I also met someone who I look up to, who refused to give me an autograph. At the same time, I had this very positive – and very negative – experience, and both impacted me in profound ways. So…. Fast forward…. I was recuperating from my second knee surgery, and I felt like it was a perfect time for me to start giving back in the same way Picabo did for me. I wanted as many girls as possible to have that same positive experience, and that same opportunity. That was the genesis – it was nothing to do with sports per-say, but rather that I wanted kids to realise their potential, to be empowered to achieve their goals, education, sport, or whatever they want! I want young people to realise that they need drive and determination to succeed, and that they really can achieve anything.
The small things are what make the biggest impact sometimes – and that starts with how you treat people. My 90 seconds with Picabo changed my life. You’d be surprised how many kids have parents and peers around there who tell them they can’t, I want to tell them they can.
[Vikas: are you working with kids irrespective of their background, or interests too?]
[Lindsey Vonn]: it’s not necessarily just sports that I’m focussing on. It’s inspiring kids to believe in themselves. That could be in academia or sports. I really try to focus on kids that need the most support – and that tends to be those from underserved backgrounds or indeed those who may be from wealthier backgrounds, but who don’t have support. It’s about who needs help… I have an open policy with my foundation insofar as I don’t put restrictions on who can come to my camps – I want anyone who needs it, to have access. Our scholarships are somewhat different – they’re really for more underserved kids, but where the camps are concerned, there are no restrictions or limitations on who can come and be empowered. Everyone needs encouragement and everyone needs hope.
Q: Are there any stand out stories of achievement from the young people you’ve worked with through the foundation?
[Lindsey Vonn]: Honestly, it’s not even about achieving something – it’s about changing mindset. There are so many stories. There’s a girl from Baltimore, her name is Miracle. She was raised by her grandparents and wanted to be a gymnast. I was able to give her a scholarship – and she recently showed me all her ribbons, and her grandparents were so very thankful. She’s found a strength, drive and determination that they hadn’t seen in her for a long time. There is also a girl who came to camp at a time she was self-harming- and since coming to the camp, she’s done a complete 180, and is now happy, focussed, and purposeful. That’s meaningful for me. At that age, kids can go strongly in one direction or another in life, and being able to give them a steer is a huge accomplishment.
Q: How do you cope with the weight of responsibility that comes with profile, and impact?
[Lindsey Vonn]: The responsibility I feel is more the weight of wanting to help more kids – and wanting to do more with the foundation – to help as many individuals as I can. It’s a paradox though, because the weight comes with a sense of lightness and empowerment through the help, I’m able to give. I also take everything through the lens of a child – I remember the experiences that I had as a kid, and how impactful they were. I can only do what I can- but if I continue to work through that lens, I feel that’s all I can do.
My responsibility as an athlete is to pass everything down to as many people as I can, to provide empowerment and teaching. I want to do what I can to inspire and empower kids to help them overcome adversity.
It’s strange though, I never feel this as a weight when I’m around kids – I feel so much lighter. They have an impact on me, as much as I hope to have an impact on them. It’s a real mutual benefit.
[Vikas: It’s true, I think a lot of philanthropists don’t necessarily talk about the positive impact you feel through the work]
[Lindsey Vonn]: It’s like Christmas. Honestly, I love giving gifts and I love seeing the joy on people’s faces. It brings me just as much joy to give something as it does to receive something.
Q: When did you know it was the right time in your journey to begin philanthropy?
[Lindsey Vonn]: At the time I was thinking about giving back in a more structured way, I was also surrounded by people who were very philanthropic. They encouraged me and helped me to build a foundation – it’s a big step, and one that a lot of athletes don’t think they can manage alongside their careers. I’m also lucky that my sisters are helping me with the foundation – I always want to be careful with who I work with to make sure that everyone in the foundation has the same values, purpose and mission as me. I see too often where actually the team brought in can steer a foundation in a different way.
At the time, it was also the second year in a row that I was injured. I was missing the Olympics, and I felt like I was in a dark hole. I wanted to make something positive come from this situation – and I couldn’t’ do that on the slopes.
Q: How do you cope with failure, and success?
[Lindsey Vonn]: It’s only a failure if you don’t learn from your mistakes, right? In sport you make a lot of mistakes. I crashed a lot, but I always felt like I could do better and learn. I was always able to find some way of making every adversity into something positive, even if I was physically no longer the athlete I was, I became mentally stronger. I used every adversity and changed it into something positive. Success was a reward for hard-work, I never felt that success was about ego. It was more about doing what I love, and putting the hard-work in. The harder I worked, the more successful I became, and I loved that correlation, and the work was just as important to me as success.
Q: What is the role grit has played in your career?
[Lindsey Vonn]: Success are not determined by who is the smartest in the room- it’s determined by who’s willing to make the sacrifices to succeed. Athletes are a good example of determination and discipline – no matter what failure you have as an athlete, you have to continue. When most people have an adversity they think, ‘oh, I can’t do this anymore…. I’m not good enough…’ what we are taught to think is, ‘oh hey, there’s a brick wall, what’s my way through, over, around or under it…’ What I learn myself from other athletes every day is that the impossible is always possible. You just have to find a way to do it.
Q: What drives you?
[Lindsey Vonn]: I love going fast, that’s something that really drives me. There’s something very freeing about competing with a mountain! There’s also an element of risk, right? In downhill, you’re going at 85mph, and that level of risk induces a certain level of excitement and adrenaline. I love pushing the limits – and while I’m not necessarily competing against other people when I’m racing, I see the mountain as a competitor. I want to see how fast I can go… how much further I can push myself… and often times I’ve crossed the line and crashed, but I enjoy finding that line and my goal is to (hopefully) stay just under it.
[Vikas: What is your relationship with fear?]
[Lindsey Vonn]: This might sound strange, but I’ve never been ‘afraid.’ I’ve certainly been nervous- very nervous- but I’ve never been afraid. That’s what has allowed me to come back from injuries- I’m not afraid of the consequences. I know the risks, I accept the risks, but I’m not afraid of the risks. Fear can be quite debilitating as a mindset – and can stop people from achieving the things they want to.
My dad always said you can’t win until you don’t care. That’s how I approached it. My goal was to ski the best I could, as fast as I could, and I didn’t care. I would rather crash than come to the finish line knowing I could have done better.
Q: How do you cope with the lens of public scrutiny?
[Lindsey Vonn]: Public scrutiny has never been easy for me, I’ve learned how to cope with it. As an athlete, you are used to people criticising you, your sport, your performance, your mistakes… and it gets worse the more successful you get – but…. The better you do, the more people also try and tear you down as a person and that’s hard. I’ve developed a thick skin, and I know that the people tearing me down are not my friends or family or indeed the people that matter, and I try to keep perspective. The things that people have said to me online, honestly, have been utterly ruthless – and sometimes it gets to me – sometimes against my better instinct, I reply to the trolls. If someone says I’m not nice to kids, I can’t just sit there and take it, right? I know however that my engagement gives them validity and amplifies their voice – but it’s hard.
Q: What does legacy mean to you?
[Lindsey Vonn]: I have a perception of legacy because of Picabo, and because of the impact she made on me. Ultimately, I can’t decide what my legacy is. I can only be the best person that I can be – and I think my impact is larger than ski racing and records, however fast I went. I think what connects me most with people is my injuries and my foundation. I hope that lives beyond me, and beyond what I’ve achieved on the slopes.
You can’t create your own legacy, you can’t dictate it. You can just be the best you can, and hope that it creates a legacy.