Commentary

Fearless style has Vonn on verge of skiing history

Updated: March 11, 2008, 6:27 PM ET
By Meri-Jo Borzilleri | Special to ESPN.com

Lindsey VonnAgence Zoom/Getty ImagesLast week, Lindsey Vonn became the most decorated U.S. downhill skier with her 10th career victory.
WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Lindsey Vonn has always had an innate fearlessness.

It showed when she raced slalom as a kid at the tiny Buck Hill ski area in Minnesota. Racing in legendary youth ski coach Erich Sailer's kids program, Vonn skied at night, under poor lights that made the terrain look flatter than it really is.

Skiing in flat light, "It's just a lot easier to hit a bump that you don't see or catch an edge," Vonn said.

But that didn't keep Vonn from going fast.

"Growing up, I always would train with Erich Sailer at Mount Hood. We would train in everything there was -- it could be dumping rain, totally fogged in. I always enjoyed it. I never really had a problem with it."

And this week, Vonn's fearlessness puts her on the verge of becoming the best female skier not just in slalom but in the world.

If all goes well during the four-race World Cup finals this week in Bormio, Italy, Vonn, 23, will win the overall title, a designation many in the skiing world consider more prestigious than Olympic gold and more indicative of the world's top racer because it measures success in all four disciplines -- slalom, giant slalom, super-G and downhill.

"It would be insane," Vonn said. "Literally, ridiculously insane. Because winning the overall is not something that comes lightly. It is something you can't train for. You can't start the season and say, 'OK, I'm going to win the overall.' It doesn't work that way. It's like, you just fight, and fight, and fight, and fight, and hopefully you come out on top.

"The biggest thing you can do to train for it is just in the summer, conditioning training. Because that's what it comes down to; it comes down to the last month. It's totally like a marathon. You can't start the race too early and run out of gas. You can't start too slow and then have to catch up. You really have to have a good strong pace the whole way."

American Bode Miller, the 2005 overall men's champion who is racing independently of the U.S. team this season, also is leading in the overall. Miller has a solid lead on the men's side, 169 points ahead of Didier Cuche and 267 over Benjamin Raich. If both U.S. skiers win, they would equal the feat by Americans Phil Mahre and Tamara McKinney in 1983. No U.S. woman has won the overall since then.

Going into the season-ending stop that begins Wednesday in Bormio, Vonn leads friend Maria Riesch by 150 points with 1,263 overall. Defending champion Nicole Hosp of Austria is third and is stronger in the technical events (slalom and giant slalom). Vonn has piled up most of her points in the speed events (super-G and downhill). There is one race left in each discipline.

[+] EnlargeLindsey and Thomas Vonn
Jeff Vinnick/Getty ImagesLindsey's husband Thomas, a former U.S. team member, coaches and travels with her to nearly every World Cup stop.

"[Vonn has] such an amazing touch on the snow right now and she sees the line like no other," Canadian skier Emily Brydon told The Vancouver Sun. "She's unstoppable right now, or untouchable, or uncatchable, or all of the above."

As a kid, Vonn stood out because of her height (she's now 5-foot-10), her work ethic and what U.S. women's speed coach Alex Hoedlmoser called her "full-on spaghetti legs."

When Sailer first saw Vonn race in his kids program, he felt pity. Not for the 6-year-old Lindsey, but for her father, Alan Kildow, a former junior national champion.

"Poor Alan," Sailer remembered thinking. "He has a real turtle here. She moved extremely slow. She moved like a turtle. So how could I possibly imagine she would be a downhiller?"

Five years later, Lindsey had shed her shell. Skiing at Buck Hill, she blossomed into one of the top slalom skiers in her age group. She found big-mountain speed as a teenager after leaving Buck Hill for Vail, Colo. Her father moved the entire family there (Vonn's four younger siblings include triplets) for Lindsey's skiing. The rest of the family eventually moved back to Minnesota, and Vonn's parents divorced.

Although Lindsey did not talk about her father, her husband, Thomas Vonn, says she and Alan haven't spoken in years. Vonn's estrangement from her father has been well documented. She has said she cut ties with her father in 2005 after disagreements over the marketing of her skiing career and Thomas' involvement. Her father showed up at the World Championships in Bormio that year against her wishes. A distracted Vonn, favored for medals at the event, failed to place within the top three in any race.

"Unfortunately, he's a stubborn man," Thomas Vonn said. "He's an unique individual. I've never met anyone quite like him, to be honest. He's out of the picture, completely. They haven't talked in years. It's unfortunate, for sure, but when someone's going to act like that, they can't be in the picture."

Vonn had early success, the lone bright spot on the women's team at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, where she placed sixth in the combined at age 17.

Vonn was favored to win the downhill event at the 2006 Torino Olympics before a training crash left her too battered to race her best (she still had top-10 finishes in super-G and downhill), Teammate Julia Mancuso grabbed the spotlight with a giant slalom gold.

Vonn clinched her first World Cup downhill overall title at Whistler, B.C., last month, just the second American -- male or female -- to accomplish that; her childhood role model and current friend and mentor Picabo Street did it in 1995 and 1996. The title, clinched with a second-place finish, came on the same hill slated for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Last week, Vonn became the most decorated downhill skier in U.S. history with her 10th career victory. She surpassed Street and Daron Rahlves, who have nine each. Her victory came by more than half a second, an impressive feat in downhill, an event in which winning margins usually are measured in tenths or hundredths of a second.

It would be insane. It is something you can't train for. You can't start the season and say, 'OK, I'm going to win the overall.' It's like, you just fight, and fight, and fight, and fight, and hopefully you come out on top

--Lindsey Vonn on potentially winning the World Cup overall title

"Her biggest strength is she knows she can beat everybody," Hoedlmoser said. "She knows if she has a decent run, and she doesn't even have to go 100 percent now … that she is going to beat everybody. If she has a 100 percent perfect run with everything lined up, with equipment and conditions right, she can beat everyone by 1.5 seconds, and she knows that. That's why she's so mentally strong going into downhill races now."

Those who know Vonn say part of the reason she is skiing so well is personal happiness. Lindsey, formerly Lindsey Kildow, married former U.S. team member Thomas Vonn in September. He coaches and travels with her to nearly every World Cup stop, driving between small European towns that make up most of the World Cup circuit.

"She can sit in the shotgun seat with her feet on the dashboard and know that they're going to get where they're supposed to go," said Street, who -- like the Vonns -- lives in Park City, Utah. "She's really settled when he's around."

She and Lindsey talk on a fairly regular basis. Street says Vonn is something of a homebody and a gym rat, spending lots of time working out for skiing. Sometimes Vonn will drop by to visit Street and to play with her preschool-age son, Trey.

Vonn said being married hasn't made her a better athlete, necessarily, but "a smarter athlete." Thomas helps with little things, some as mundane as reminding her to wash her hands to ward off sickness, and big things, such as adjusting her race gear and helping with tactics and course reports.

"It always helps to have an extra eye because he knows my strengths and weaknesses," she said.

And Thomas says one of those strengths -- fearlessness -- is also a weakness. Standing in the finish area during the downhill at Whistler, he shifted nervously from foot to foot as he awaited his wife's start. Downhillers can reach speeds of 80 mph.

"He totally freaks out," Vonn said of her husband. "He pretty much has a heart attack. In St. Moritz, for example, in the downhill, I was having a crazy run; everything was going every which way. He would have to turn around. He was going crazy. I could never do that again because he almost died."

Thomas admits Lindsey can be hard to watch, but for good reason.

"I get way more nervous than I ever did racing myself," he said. "I'm mostly nervous because, in the past, she's been kind of a sketchy skier, where bobbles happen and she hits fences. She has a high record of crashing.

"That's the one thing that scares me about her skiing: She has no fear of the course. I'm almost trying to teach her [that] you need to have some fear of the course. There are sections that you can't just have your chin lead you down the hill. That's where she's been kind of pulling back on a little this year. Not so much fear, but being smart through those sections."

Last year, Vonn was in the hunt for the overall before partially tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during slalom training at the World Championships, forcing her to end her season a month early. In the past, Vonn has paid for the too-straight-line approach down the hill, losing valuable points with crashes.

Thomas says she still needs work in the technical events. ("In slalom, she's still pedal to the metal, start to finish.") But, in downhill at least, it has clicked. Instead of going as fast as she can, Vonn is learning to go fast enough to win.

"It doesn't really matter if you win by one-hundredth or one second," she said. "Winning is winning. That's all I'm focusing on right now."

She hopes holding back might mean more speed going forward.

"Right now, I have that top speed, but it's too much on the edge," Vonn said. "It's too risky. If I train more at that speed, then I'll start integrating that into my racing. One hundred percent will become my 90 percent. Then, I'll have another gear."

All of which means Vonn, half a world away from Buck Hill, is closing in on history. Fast.

Meri-Jo Borzilleri, a freelance writer based in Bellingham, Wash., is a contributor to ESPN.com.

Meri-Jo Borzilleri

Contributor, espnW.com
Meri-Jo Borzilleri has been a journalist for more than 20 years, most recently for the Colorado Springs Gazette, where she covered the U.S. Olympic Committee and three Olympics before resigning to freelance in 2007. Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, USA Today, ESPN.com, nbcolympics.com, universalsports.com and The Associated Press. She works and lives in Bellingham, Washington.