Lindsey Vonn on Pain, Grit, and What Came Next

“Skiing was my sun, and everything else in my life was all these planets orbiting around the sun. And then one day I woke up, and the sun was gone.”

Any fan of competitive ski racing can tell you the story of Lindsey Vonn—the most celebrated female ski racer of all time (not to mention, one of the most beloved female athletes of all time) and long-considered the pride of US winter sports and face of Team USA. How the Minnesota-native started skiing when she was three. How her father, Alan Kildow, was an avid ski racer, having won the junior nationals until a knee injury put him on the shelf at 18—and consequently, never batting an eye when his 9-year-old announced her plans to make it to the Olympics someday.

Make it she did. A decade later, Vonn was barreling down the slopes in Salt Lake City at the 2002 Winter Olympics. She would then go on to win the gold medal in downhill at the 2010 Winter Olympics, a first time for an American woman.

The alpine skier racked up a head-spinning record: 82 World Cup victories (just short of Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86 world cup wins), 20 World Cup titles, 3 Olympic medals, and 7 World Championship Medals—which makes her the all-time leader in women’s World Cup victories. 

No one gets that far that fast without making some sacrifices. For Vonn, it was always gonna be skiing over anything and everything else—never fearing speed, pain, a few broken bones, torn ACL’s, concussions, public scrutiny, or missing out on all the coming-of-age milestones those that would never make it as far as she did would experience. Vonn had only one thing on the brain: winning.

But what happens when an all-or-nothing competitor like the legend who is Lindsey Vonn, is forced to retire? In an exclusive interview with LEO, Vonn opens up about overcoming pain, true grit, her “soul crushing” retirement in 2019, and what comes next—hint: it may or may not include skiing with Hugh Jackman. Not to mention, heading back to the Winter Olympics to share her insider perspective on the games as a member of the NBC Sports team, and releasing her first memoir, Rise.

Editors Note: Watch her interview below or on the LEOedit YouTube page or read a lightly edited transcript below.

2018 Winter Olympic Games, Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea, 2018. Photo/Sarah Brunson/U.S. Ski & Snowboard

“I was always told by my parents that I could be whatever I wanted to be. When I said I wanted to be in the Olympics, there was no hesitation.”

Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Finals, Are, Sweden, 2018. Photo Eruc Willemsen/AP

“Literally everything revolved around skiing in one way or another, no matter if I was on the slopes or not. So when I retired, it was like, where does everything fit in?”

Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, 2018. Photo/Hans Bezard/Agence Zoom

“If I would have been a little bit more cautious, could I have won races and maybe not gotten hurt as much? Probably, but that’s not who I am.”

Vancouver Olympics, Whistler, British Columbia, 2010. Photo/Gero Breloer/AP

“There were very few kids my age willing to sacrifice the things that needed to be sacrificed in order to go the extra mile to win, and I think that’s the definition of grit; it’s not the most talented person or the smartest person. It’s literally the person that is willing to continuously work day in and day out and sacrifice things that no one else is, in order to get to the next level. ”

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“If I say I can’t do something, I literally cannot do it; there’s absolutely no way—and that’s just the point that I was at in my career. I was just too broken down. There was no other option for me but to retire, and my coaches were trying to push me through it. They had never heard me say I can’t do something. Those words had never come out of my mouth.

I think they thought, ‘Oh, I just need a little bit of encouragement.’ And that’s not what I needed. I needed someone to really understand what I was saying, but no one actually did.”

FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, St. Mortiz, Switzerland, 2017.

“I never questioned the risk involved. I knew, obviously, if I crashed that the likelihood of me being injured was exceptionally high. But that’s part of the game, and that’s also what makes it really exciting. I thrive off of that stuff. I don’t repel away from it; I lean into it.”

FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, Are, Sweden, 2019. Photo/Getty/Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Stringer

“I knew my body was at a point where I couldn’t keep going, but I wanted to go out on a high note. The race before my last race, I didn’t finish, and I didn’t want that to be my farewell.”

U.S. Ski Team training, Copper Mountain, CO, 2017. Photo/U.S. Ski & Snowboard

“I really kind of re-learned skiing outside of racing. We have a good group of us that all go together, which is really fun, and then we occasionally get someone like Hugh Jackman. We’re helping him learn how to ski, and he’s actually really athletic and great—but we’re gonna go at his pace. As one does when skiing with Hugh Jackman.”

Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, 2018. Photo/Stephan Jansen/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

“When an athlete sees a brick wall, we don’t say, ‘I can’t get through the wall.’ We’re like, ‘Can I go over it? Can I go around it? Can I go under it? Can I break through it?'”