Feature | Alpine Skiing

Lindsey Vonn talks therapy and helping children's mental health

Olympic downhill skiing champion finds new purpose from working with her foundation after retiring from skiing last year.

By Olympic Channel ·

With 82 World Cup wins, an Olympic gold medal and two World Championship titles, Lindsey Vonn is the most successful female speed skier in history.

But that success came at a physical and mental cost.

On In Depth with Graham Bensinger, Vonn reeled off a catalogue of injuries she suffered during her career and talked about how her desire to be the best took a toll on her mental health, especially after retiring in 2019 having failed to beat Ingemar Stenmark's record of 86 World Cup victories.

The 35-year-old said, "I have a hard time saying that I did a good job at something. I'm working on that in therapy though!

"I still feel like a failure at times. There's always going to be a question because I didn't break the record."

Now she is focused on her Lindsey Vonn Foundation which organises camps and community programmes to inspire and help disadvantaged youngsters.

Speaking ahead of World Mental Health Day, Vonn believes she has found new purpose to her life and recounted how a girl she established contact with through one of her Strong Girls camps stopped having suicidal thoughts.

"I had a young girl who cut herself. And after my camp, she stopped doing it and that made me so happy. I was like, 'This is what I'm here for'. I mean, you take a child that wants to kill herself and I can help her.

"I feel like everyone's put on the Earth for a certain reason, and I thought it was ski racing for a long time.

"Ski racing is just a vehicle for me to do other things that are more positive and I can help people." - Lindsey Vonn

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Vonn felt pressure after her family gave up everything for her career

Growing up, Vonn used to commute between the family home in Minnesota and Vail, Colorado, where her father enrolled her in the best skiing programme in the country.

Eventually, her parents made the decision to sell up and move permanently to Colorado in order to support Vonn's sporting aspirations.

"We were definitely shocked, very shocked," she said of her and her four siblings' reaction to the move.

"We didn't handle it very well. I think we were all crying pretty intensely. But ski racing was my dream... it was never really their dream. So in that way, I felt exceptionally guilty because, you know, they didn't ask for it. They missed their home in Minnesota. And I felt like I kind of took that away from them in a way.

"So I knew from a very early age that there was a lot of expectation on me. I always wanted to succeed for myself but it was always in the back of my mind that feeling of, 'I have to do this for my family to prove that they made the right decision.'"

Their faith in their daughter's ability was confirmed as Vonn won the downhill and Super-G at the 2009 World Championships before claiming Olympic downhill gold at Vancouver 2010.

Vonn recalled, "I think that's why, when I won the Olympics, it was so emotional for me because that is what our family gave up everything for. So that I could succeed and and win that gold medal.

"I felt a lot of joy, but I would say more relief than anything else because that had been the ultimate goal that we had set out to do and we finally did it. Everyone was crying." - Lindsey Vonn on winning downhill gold at Vancouver 2010

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Ski racing was Vonn's "escape"

When she was 22, the then Lindsey Kildow married Thomas Vonn, one of her team-mates at Salt Lake City 2002.

But four years later, in 2011, the couple announced that they were to divorce.

Despite that personal turmoil, and a breakdown in communications with her father, Vonn went on to have the greatest season by a woman in World Cup history and claim her fourth overall World Cup title.

So how did she manage to retain such focus?

"Because I was using ski racing as an escape," she revealed.

"Ski racing is a place that I can go and I not think about anything else in the world. So no matter what happens in my life, divorce, family, whatever it is, I can always go skiing and only be skiing. Be in the moment, not have anything on my mind, but enjoying what I'm doing."

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"I still feel like a failure at times."

Vonn's relationship with her father has often been fraught.

He taught her to be competitive in skiing, telling his daughter that there were only two places in a skiing race: first and last.

These lessons, in addition to those dished out by an "old school Navy Seal-style personal trainer" toughened up the young skier, and remain with her to this day.

"I'm definitely my hardest critic," she said.

"I'm pretty hard to please. I have a hard time saying that I did a good job at something. I'm working on that in therapy though!"

Her 82 World Cup wins is the most of any woman, but Vonn admits failing to break Stenmark's all-time record was a source of despair.

"I think I've accepted that I have had success in my career. And even though I didn't beat the record - four wins shy of that. I still need to accept that I did something that no one else has done.

"It's weird... I still feel like a failure at times. There's always going to be a question because I didn't break the record. I can't say that I have the most wins of anybody without doing that. I feel like I can't really say I'm the greatest.

"Whenever I won one thing, I wanted to win the next. It wasn't that I set out to do all these things, but I just kept wanting more and more and nothing was ever really good enough." - Lindsey Vonn

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Inspiring kids during COVID

When Vonn was nine years old, she met Picabo Street who went on to win Super-G gold at Nagano 1998.

Street made an immediate impression and became Vonn's role model and later her mentor when the youngster moved to Colorado.

As well as spurring her on during her career, that experience served as the inspiration for Vonn to launch her own foundation after retiring from the slopes.

She said, "We want to empower kids. We want to inspire them. I have Strong Girls camps where we teach them about goal setting, like self-confidence, how to change a negative thought into a positive one. I have scholarships. I've free community programs. So we're just trying to encourage kids to believe in themselves."

Keen to pass on the value of having a role model to today's children - who are also being greatly affected by school closures during the coronavirus pandemic - she also decided to create 'Career Day'.

The initiative sees a young winner from her foundation share a call with an expert from the field they would like to work in.

"Kids feel depressed and down because they don't have anything to look forward to," she continued.

"And so I thought, 'Well, what if I can connect these girls and their heroes on Zoom and help them stay positive and help them continue to work hard to whatever it is they want to do?' I had an astronaut on there with one of our scholarship winners who wants to be an aerospace engineer, which is awesome.

"I wanted something for the kids to look at and say, 'OK, you know, there is still future. I can still do something even though we're trapped indoors.'

"I know that for the girls that were on the call, it helped a lot, but I hope that it inspired other girls as well."

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