The day of the first race at the Alpine World Ski Championships in Austria was a gray Tuesday; above-zero temperatures, rain, mist. It had snowed in the previous days, and the Schladming piste was soft and sticky on this Feb. 5, 2013, particularly away from the narrow corridor of the racing line.
The start of the women’s Super-G, set for 11 a.m., was repeatedly delayed due to the weather. “Starting in 15 minutes,” then again, “Starting in 15 minutes,” came the radio announcements to the competitors, who were drinking tea in the alpine station. Just when everyone thought the race was off, the start came at 2:30 p.m., the latest allowable time according to the regulations.
It was after 3 p.m. and dusk was already settling in when No. 19, favorite for World Cup gold, stepped up. Four-hundredths of a second lead at the first intermediate time, 12 behind at the second. But her race was over after 44 seconds. Search YouTube for “Vonn crash,” and turn down the volume if you’re easily disturbed.
The lateral and cruciate ligaments of Lindsey Vonn’s visibly dislocated right knee were torn, her tibial plateau—the part of the shinbone that meets the knee—fractured. That evening, a rumor went around Schladming that the injury was so bad that the USA’s Olympic and world champion and multiple World Cup winner would never be able to ski again.
Five days later, Vonn underwent an operation in Vail, Colorado, with the optimistic prognosis that she would be able to continue her career. A few days later she posted a photo of her leg on Facebook: reddish-brown swollen flesh full of bruises, stitches, and plaster. A hashtag predicted “#longskirtsthissummer.”
The comeback countdown had started ticking, and the target was already well in focus: Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, the women’s downhill race at the Olympics in Sochi. The Red Bulletin accompanied Vonn during her months of rehab and conducted several conversations with her, her circle, and her handlers. The following interview took place in Miami, which is also where Michael Muller’s photos were taken.
The Red Bulletin: Lindsey Vonn, how often do you think about the crash that almost ended your career?
Lindsey Vonn: Not at all anymore.
But you’ve watched it?
Yes, a few times on YouTube. I wanted to know if it looked the way it felt.
It looked exactly the way it felt. My right ski came to a stop in the soft snow, my lower leg twisted to the right, my body fell over my knee, which dislocated.
How did you feel when you watched it?
I was pissed. Everyone knows that there simply shouldn’t have been a race on that day. We were on standby up there for five hours, and that’s hardly a good starting point for a race with speeds of up to 80 miles per hour.
But how did you actually feel when you saw your knee getting smashed? When you saw yourself lying in the snow, screaming and whimpering in pain.
Oh, I see. I didn’t care. I’d crashed plenty of times before. I’d had worse falls. Sestriere [in Italy], for example, Olympics training 2006, that was a good one. I still don’t understand how I didn’t break both my knees then.
You came away with a light back injury, and 43 hours later you were able to compete in an Olympic race.
The back injury is my souvenir from Sestriere. Since then I have backaches when I have to stand for long periods of time. I’m looking forward to how my back will feel when I’m old.
Your Red Bull athletic supervisor, Robert Trenkwalder, says that there are also positive aspects to the kind of injury you had in Schladming. He says that you can grow and learn from it.
Before then I could always push my way through injury, but I couldn’t this time. For the first time I had an injury which was greater than my will. In the first three weeks that was extremely hard to accept. I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t go get a coffee, I could only sit. There was no pushing. Only waiting.
Did you become a more patient person during this time?
I tried. What I learned from that period was to listen to my body.
What do you mean by that?
I actually listened to my knee. You could say that during this time I communicated with my knee.
As in, “Good morning knee”?
Almost. You pay extremely close attention to feedback, any twinge, any sign that an exercise was going too far.
Have you talked to your knee today?
No. Since summer there’s been radio silence. Since I played tennis for the first time without problems, my knee has become a completely normal part of my body once again. Tennis puts far more stress on your knees than skiing.
Your left turns, where the right leg takes more of the weight, were stronger than your right turns before the crash. True or false?
True. But that didn’t have anything to do with the knee, rather the mobility of my hips. In any case, it’s hard to do nothing but left turns in training [laughs].
In purely medical terms, are both knees now equally strong?
There’s a one percent difference.
Maybe your right knee will make up the extra one percent.
[Laughs.] No, no, after the rehab and the muscle training my right knee is even stronger than my left.
You spent spring and summer in rehab instead of training. What does that mean for the 2013/14 season?
The first downhills are in late November, early December. But my goal is the Olympic Games—they’re in February and that’s more than enough time.
You’ve already won gold at the Olympics, at world championships and the World Cup, but winning in Sochi would be the greatest success of your career. Would you agree?
Yes, definitely. To win gold after this injury, personally that would be my greatest success. The accident was the lowest point in my career. Gold in Sochi would be the highest.
There’s another issue: the Austrian skier Annemarie Moser-Pröll won 62 World Cup races. You’ve won 59, so if you stay in top shape you’ll soon have the record for the most women’s World Cup victories in history.
I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but I think I will, yes.
Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden has the all-time record for men or women with 86 wins.
I’ve already been thinking about that. My current plan is to keep going until the 2015 World Cup. Then I’ll see how far away I am from that number and then I’ll decide what to do, whether I’ll keep going in every discipline or maybe just downhill and Super-G and concentrate on that record.
Are records really that important?
Absolutely. Records are the only thing that remain of an athlete, the only thing that people will remember.
That sounds a bit sad.
Because it is sad. But if I want to ensure that people don’t forget me, I can only stop once I’ve set the bar as high as possible for anyone coming after me. That means that as long as I can keep winning I’ll keep skiing. Essentially it’s about what I leave behind, and that means statistics, records.
Recently in The Red Bulletin, Andre Agassi said exactly the opposite: As long as he was only playing to win, he was unhappy. He only became happy once he was able to use his tennis wins for other causes, in his case for a school.
Don’t forget, Agassi was forced into the sport as a child. He didn’t enjoy playing tennis.
Your father was also very dominant in your career.
But it wasn’t like it was with Andre. I’ve read his book. I never had it that bad. I always enjoyed skiing. I was not pushed, I was guided.
When you were 11 years old, your family moved a thousand miles from Minnesota to Colorado so you would have better training facilities. Everything was invested in this career. Wasn’t that enormous pressure?
That was the only pressure I felt. Ultimately this pressure came from myself as well. No one pushed me.
But how does it make an 11-year-old girl feel when she knows that the future of her family depends on her success in skiing?
It was a lot of pressure, but you can’t compare it to Andre’s situation. I love skiing. I always loved it, I still love it. Skiing isn’t everything, of course. Winning isn’t everything; I know that. I’ve gone through enough—the divorce, the depression, now the injury. I’ve learned my lesson. I know that the most important thing is to be happy, to lead a happy life. But I get a lot of happiness from skiing.
As children, were your two brothers and your two sisters ever jealous of how all encompassing your ski career became?
My sisters never, my brothers a little, but not to the extent you might imagine. I mean, they had to leave all their friends behind because of my skiing, so they would have had every right to be pissed. But they supported me, they understood that it wasn’t my decision to move, that I couldn’t do anything about it. They also saw the pressure I was under. I wasn’t the princess who was waited on hand and foot. I was more of a workhorse.
Your relationship with your siblings, particularly your sisters, is very close now. Is that partly because you want to somehow make up for how things were when you were young?
They never give me the feeling that I owe them anything, but I make an effort to help them do things with their lives. My brother, for example, lives with me in Colorado rent-free because I want him to put the money toward his education. Laura gets to travel with me, she blogs, she meets journalists, and that all helps with her first steps toward journalism. I try and help them find the right door and lead them up to it. Opening the door and walking through—I have to leave that up to them.
In a recent TV documentary, you said that in 2012, when you spoke publicly about your depression and your divorce, that you felt like an adult for the first time—at 28.
Yes, for the first time I was at a point where I was the one determining what happened in my life.
In another interview, you said that your motto was “Everything happens for a reason.” Is that just a throwaway answer?
I’m certain that nothing happens without a reason. So many things have happened in my life which were only unsettling until they somehow came together, and suddenly looking back everything made sense. Why do you ask?
To know how you make sense of your injury, which came just at the moment when you were feeling better than ever before.
I’m convinced that the accident was no accident. It happened to make me strong, as a person, and it came at the moment when I was strong enough for that test.
This late maturing had a lot to do with the fact that you always had dominating men around you: first your father, then your husband.
The man currently at your side is a sports icon, the highest-earning athlete in the world, winner of 14 golf majors.
Ha ha ha, nice try. Of course Tiger is a strong character, but he isn’t dominating. He plays a completely different role. I decide what happens in my life. Even Tiger isn’t going to change that.
Does Tiger Woods make Lindsey Vonn a better skier?
A better athlete, I would say yes. One example: I wouldn’t say I’m unprofessional, but the consistency that Tiger shows in his professionalism—wow. No one has any idea how hard Tiger works. Really, no one, and in a sport in which many guys warm up by smoking a cigar, where you might assume that you don’t really need to stay fit. Tiger says he wants to be fitter than all the others, that’s his way. So he pushes himself a lot further than he perhaps needs to and to see that pushes me in turn. The other unbelievable thing about Tiger is his mental toughness. I used to think that golf was about whacking the ball and seeing how far it flew. Since I’ve been watching Tiger at tournaments, I know that golf is a freaking marathon, four days, and every damn stroke counts, in the same way that you can lose a whole chess game with a single bad move. The pressure is insane because it lasts so long. The closer I watched Tiger, the more I became fascinated by his ability to resist that pressure, how he maintains his composure and control for so long. There were moments in golf tournaments where I said to myself, “OK, Lindsey, this is the next level of self-confidence, concentration, control. When you make it to this level, it will make you a better skier.”
At the Masters in Augusta. There was this stroke where he hit the flag. That stroke cost him the tournament, but he stayed calm, he kept on fighting, even when they wanted to disqualify him. That’s not the kind of news you want to wake up to: Good morning, they want to disqualify you. The whole thing affected me more than him. Or rather, I was affected by it and he stayed completely calm. I have never, ever heard him complain or anything like that.
So should we expect to see a stoic Lindsey Vonn this winter?
You can’t make a one-to-one comparison. In skiing you have to be aggressive. You have to explode in that minute and a half. In golf that would be completely crazy; golf is a marathon, not a sprint. This experience with Tiger will really help me at the big events. At the World Cup or the Olympics, it’s not just about the one and a half minutes of racing: You’re there for two weeks and permanently in racing mode, everything’s significant, everyone’s looking at you. That’s what’s so difficult— staying calm—and that’s what really counts there. As far as stress is concerned, the Olympics are more like a golf tournament than a World Cup race.
How important is popularity to you?
It’s important for me to have an influence over young people who race; they are the future of our sport. I think that skiing should get more attention, and of course I can only help with that if I’m popular. But if you’re asking about being recognized on the street, then, no, I don’t care about that.
It seems that hasn’t always been the case.
No, it wasn’t always the case. That’s really changed over the last year. I always used popularity a bit like a crutch to get over my own insecurity. The worse I felt, the more important it was to have the recognition of others. In the worst phases of my depression and the period before my divorce, I was almost addicted to people liking me, but the more I feel confident in myself, the less it matters to me what other people think about me.
What form does this need for recognition actually take?
It’s insanely stressful. I used to read every comment on my Facebook account and if some random person didn’t like my update, I took it personally.
You read every comment? There were often several thousand for a single update.
All of them.
Not anymore. Thankfully that’s over. That’s down to a few different reasons. Above all, because now I want to be how I want to be, not how some random person on Facebook might like to see me. I’ve also come to realize that it does me more emotional harm than good if I rely that much on those comments. Many things have changed since I’ve been with Tiger. I’m playing in a different league now. I’m a celebrity to a certain extent. That means that I attract ... odd people. It’s unbelievable the amount of people out there who use you as an outlet for their pent-up aggression.
But this life of sports and glamour, with red carpets at night and the chairlift at 6 o’clock in the morning …
I am definitely not a morning person. [Laughs.]
… you had this life before you met Tiger Woods. How do you switch between the two worlds?
One thing is completely clear to me: My real world, my real life, my home, is skiing. Hard work, sweat, getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning. Red carpets are just a game. Like when you’re a little girl and you dress up and stand in front of the mirror and feel like a princess.
Things can get weird when these worlds collide. During the CFDA Awards in New York, a fashion industry event, you had to take a random drug test. That doesn’t sound like much fun.
Yes, that was pretty embarrassing. The CFDA Awards are a high-end event, the whole room was filled with the most important people in the fashion world, and suddenly there are two women waiting outside, doping control officers in sneakers, shorts, and T-shirts. I had to bring both of them into the event: Where else was I supposed to go with them in downtown New York City? I asked security to close off a toilet for us so I could pee into the cup undisturbed. The situation was so unpleasant because of course no one had any idea what was going on—that it was a routine drug test, not some kind of drug raid.
With Tiger Woods at your side you've appeared in magazines that aren't usually interested in skiers. What's it like being a target for gossip magazines?
It’s fun, honestly, because it’s so absurd, much more so than I had imagined. For instance, one magazine wrote that I was moving to Pakistan because I didn’t want to have kids with Tiger. How do they come up with this stuff? Tiger and I had a lot of fun with that at breakfast: “Bye, honey, sorry, I’m leaving you. Pakistan awaits!” And he’s like, “Good luck, say hi to the Pakistani ski team for me!”
But you play along with the media game, even in less comfortable situations, like in your appearance on David Letterman.
Oh, that really got to me. That was frustrating.
Letterman was joking about the various disciplines in skiing, but you were quick-witted and funny.
On the outside. He had no right to be so disrespectful and make fun of my sport!
So why put a brave face on it?
Because that’s the rules of the game. Letterman is comedy. It’s about the laughs. There was no point trying to tell him off or anything. When you play along, that means that you accept the rules, and one of the rules is that David Letterman’s Late Show is not the place for serious discussion of the rules of competitive skiing.
On Jay Leno’s chat show, he asked whether your husband was also your coach in bed. You even managed to laugh that off.
You have to be prepared for questions like that. They want you to react emotionally, to go off-script. That’s their job, to shake you up.
So why go on those shows when you know you can’t win?
Because the media is part of my job. I’m not just a competitive skier, I’m also a brand. That’s just how it is in modern sports—it doesn’t matter whether I think that’s a great thing or not—and for my brand to succeed I have to play along sometimes. Yes, I know there will sometimes be awkward questions, but yes, I also know that it’s better for the bottom line if I go along with it, because my profile increases and with it the value of my brand. And, not least, because it’s good for my sport. If Lindsey Vonn cancels, Letterman will have a table-tennis player or a marathon runner on, and they will be promoting their sport.
Before the start of a race, competitive skiers go through the course in their minds, and you wave the palms of your hands in front of your body. It looks funny. Are your hands the surface of the piste?
I’ve never thought about it. [Closes her eyes and raises her hands in front of her chest.] No, it’s the skis.
Do you do this virtual run of the course in real time?
Right before the start you don’t, it’s just a refresher. In summer, when we visualize the courses, or in the racing simulator on the balance devices, the times are real. Sometimes I even do it with a timer.
So you have every downhill course of the winter in your head, every bend, every jump, and you can call them up at any time?
That means that here, now, on the 15th floor of a Miami hotel, you could run the course at Cortina, or Beaver Creek, or Sochi, all in real time?
Yes, of course.
When you imagine it, are you always doing your best time?
You don’t do it to a time, but the line is usually perfect. Sometimes when I’m in bed at night, still visualizing courses, I fall just before I fall asleep, simply because I’m too tired. Then I usually get a fright and suddenly I’m wide awake. Then I have to go right back to the start again.
Check out the January 2014 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands December 10) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.