How Secret Superhero Lindsey Vonn Defied Both Insult and Injury

Lindsey Vonn’s remarkable career has seen her break countless records, but also many limbs. As the most successful female skier of all time, her record should speak for itself, but Lindsey has often faced criticism for being “dramatic” about her injury problems, and even been accused of faking them. Lindsey believes they are an accusation she would never have had to face if she were male, and given the many examples of her racing despite injury and in the aftermath of dramatic crashes, it’s hard to argue with this Secret Superhero’s logic. 

Picabo, I see you

Lindsey was born in 1984 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, into a skiing family; her father was at law school at the time, but was also an alpine racer who supplemented his income through coaching, and Lindsey describes how he would place her in his backpack before going out to coach students. This was an ideal position from which to take early skiing lessons, and Lindsey graduated from the backpack to her own skis before she was three years old. She was seven when she started racing, and although she is frequently described as a natural born competitor, she claims that she did not immediately take to the sport, and was mocked by her coach as a “turtle”, both for her lack of speed and her aversion to the cold. 

How Secret Superhero Lindsey Vonn Defied Both Insult and Injury

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Lindsey Vonn’s remarkable career has seen her break countless records, but also many limbs. As the most successful female skier of all time, her record should speak for itself, but Lindsey has often faced criticism for being “dramatic” about her injury problems, and even been accused of faking them. Lindsey believes they are an accusation she would never have had to face if she were male, and given the many examples of her racing despite injury and in the aftermath of dramatic crashes, it’s hard to argue with this Secret Superhero’s logic. 

Picabo, I see you

Lindsey was born in 1984 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, into a skiing family; her father was at law school at the time, but was also an alpine racer who supplemented his income through coaching, and Lindsey describes how he would place her in his backpack before going out to coach students. This was an ideal position from which to take early skiing lessons, and Lindsey graduated from the backpack to her own skis before she was three years old. She was seven when she started racing, and although she is frequently described as a natural born competitor, she claims that she did not immediately take to the sport, and was mocked by her coach as a “turtle”, both for her lack of speed and her aversion to the cold. 

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This would all change when Lindsey had a chance to meet Picabo Street, fresh from winning a downhill silver medal at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. Street was appearing at a promotional event outside Minnesota, and clearly remembers Lindsey in the line for the meet and greet; a disarming girl who was a little taller than the other children and never took her eyes off of Picabo despite the undisciplined throng of kids jostling for position. She later described how the youngster made a big impression: “She stayed focused on the task at hand, which was to meet me and remember me and take something away from it that she could use. I said to myself, ‘I better get ready for her because she is coming with it, and I will need to bring my A-game too.’”

How Secret Superhero Lindsey Vonn Defied Both Insult and Injury
A young Lindsey pictured with Picabo Street

The passing of the Olympic Torch 

The encounter left an even bigger impression on Lindsey, who credits this meeting with changing her attitude to racing. She began to dream of emulating Picabo, a dream which grew more ambitious as Picabo went on to win gold in the Super-G event at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. Meanwhile, as Picabo went from strength to strength, Lindsey also grew considerably as a racer, consistently beating much older children and showing the first real signs of her prodigious talent for speed. In 1986, her parents had moved to the ski resort of Vail in Colorado to assist her development, which allowed her to develop skills in events other than the slalom, a change which she credits with assisting her development as an all-rounder, and also her almost obsessive love of speed. This was something that was picked up on by Picabo, who got to watch the young prodigy race for the first time in 1999, and could immediately tell that Lindsey was going to be special. “The faster she went, the bigger the smile she got on her face,' Street said. 'You can't teach somebody to love the fall line like that little girl loved the fall line”

Lindsey made her World Cup debut the following year, and in 2002 found herself racing alongside her idol as they both competed in the 2002 Olympics in Utah. Lindsey finished sixth in the combined event, and although Picabo - who never fully recovered from a broken leg and torn ACL that she sustained in 1998 - could only manage a 16th placed finish in the downhill, she was on hand to offer valuable advice and support to her teenaged protégé. 

A part of the job

While many would have been satisfied with these remarkable early achievements, Lindsey simply grew more determined to improve. She did not dream of participating in the Olympics, but of winning them, and so redoubled her efforts on and off the slopes, particularly in physical training. These efforts paid off handsomely, and early in 2004 she achieved her first World Cup podium finish. In December of that year she tasted victory for the first time, and picked up five more podium finishes during the season, putting her among the top female skiers on Earth, and in contention for medals at the 2006 Olympics in Turin.

Her first training run for the Olympic downhill was the second fastest in the field. The next training run ended in an airlift, after a terrifying crash that left her hospitalized overnight. Incredibly, she returned to compete in the race just two days later, finishing eighth despite a bruised hip and severe pain. This was typical of Vonn’s approach throughout her career, and she has spoken of how crashing at high speeds is merely “part of my job… if you’re not pushing limits then you’re also not crashing”. She continued to push those limits after Torino, and the results were spectacular, winning her first World Cup in 2008, becoming the first American woman overall champion since Tamara McKinney in 1983. She would go on to retain her title for the next two seasons, but went into the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver carrying another injury, a bruised shin sustained in a fall just a week before the competition. Despite this, she won gold in the downhill, achieving a lifelong ambition and matching the achievements of her friend and mentor. 

Lindsey crashing out of the giant slalom event at the 2010 Olympics

Sadly, injuries would continue to dog her career from this point forward. She won one more World Cup in the 2011/12 season, but was forced to withdraw from the 2014 Olympics after sustaining a tear to her ACL the previous year. The extent of her injury problems can be seen through her results; although she retired with an incredible 82 race wins at World Cup events, she only won four overall titles, compared with the six won by her nearest challenger, Annemarie Moser-Proll, from 62 race wins. 

Dramatic or Resilient?

Injuries eventually forced Lindsey to retire in 2019, just four wins short of Ingemar Stenmark’s record of 86 wins in men’s races. While her record speaks for itself, she’s now determined to challenge accusations throughout her career that she exaggerated injuries for effect. She cites one competitor who said in an interview during the 2015-16 season: “Lindsey’s so dramatic. She always has something wrong with her. She’s constantly saying something is injured, but she’s obviously faking it, because she keeps winning.” She addresses the issue in her new book, Rise, saying “The truth is, your competitors don’t have to like you, but that accusation of being ‘dramatic’ touches a nerve in part because it’s just not a word that gets thrown at men in the same way. I always suspected that if I were a man, my injuries would have been covered for what they were, rather than for the distraction they caused. And if I had been a man, and behaved the same way and achieved the same things, everyone would have believed me when it came to my injuries. They would have taken me at my word instead of second-guessing me or accusing me of faking it. If a man had come back from some of my injuries, everyone—the press, fellow athletes—would have been like, “Wow, that’s f–king gnarly. Respect.” Instead of doubting my honesty, they would have celebrated my grit.”

Lindsey with Mikaela Shiffrin

Having competed despite injuries on so many occasions, Vonn’s resilience should not be in question. Her commitment to supporting women in sport is also not in doubt, and she continues to emulate her mentor, Picabo Street, by acting as an inspiration to the next generation of female skiers. She is now doing this through the Lindsey Vonn Foundation, which provides a wide range of scholarships and support to young girls looking to follow in the illustrious footsteps of Picabo, Lindsey and now the mercurial talent of Mikaela Shiffrin, another American gold medallist Olympian who stands on the brink of beating Lindsey’s record for World Cup wins. As Vonn told the German media in 2022 - "Mikaela is the best skier that has ever lived in my eyes. She will break my record of World Cup wins very quickly and will become the greatest skier in history." When that inevitably does happen, it will be in part because of the efforts of this Secret Superhero, who raised the bar for other racers but has also been careful to support the generations that follow her.

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