For Lindsey Vonn, Professional Triumph and Personal Turmoil

Published: April 8, 2012

The New Work Times


VAIL, Colo. — Skiing in the mountains above the Vail resort last week, Lindsey Vonn slowed to a stop at the top of a trail named in her honor after she won the 2010 women’s Olympic downhill.

Vonn gazed at the trail but skied past it, and within minutes had ditched her ski gear and propped her stocking feet on a stool in a slopeside condominium.

“The 2010 Olympics seem far away now,” she said. “So much has happened. So much has changed. So many sleepless nights and dark days. The ups and downs — it has been really difficult. And I wouldn’t have predicted that.”

Last month, Vonn completed a record-setting race season, the greatest by a woman in the history of the World Cup. But her best year came amid personal turmoil as Vonn dealt with a thorny divorce.

Last November, after four years of marriage, Vonn split with her husband, Thomas, who had also acted as her coach, manager and equipment guru. Asked to characterize the divorce negotiations, Vonn last week sighed deeply and said, “I would say they’re a mess.”

The couple did not sign a prenuptial agreement, she said, and have not spoken in two months since they tried to settle many details of their breakup themselves.

“That didn’t work out,” she said.

The Vonns are worth millions of dollars, with Lindsey buffeted not only by her competition prize money but by multiple lucrative long-term contracts with sponsors like Rolex, Red Bull, Vail Resorts, Under Armour, and most recently, Kohl’s department stores.

“There are a lot of moving parts; it’s going to take a while,” she said of the divorce, adding with a rueful smile, “Calling it a mess might not be strong enough.”

Thomas Vonn, who is living in one of the couple’s dwellings, a condo in Park City, Utah, did not dispute Lindsey’s portrayal.

“The whole process has been difficult,” he said in a telephone interview. “The whole situation saddens you.”

The Vonns’ divorce unexpectedly altered what had been a winsome story line of a skiing star with rare, crossover mainstream popularity. The strengths of their partnership had been celebrated after her victories, and Thomas Vonn was a continual presence at her side. The divorce proceedings clashed with the projected, orderly public image, and they also spawned an Internet buzz that had Vonn dating any number of A-list celebrities, most notably the quarterback sensation Tim Tebow, then playing for the Denver Broncos.

With all this on her plate last fall — and after failing in 2010 to win the World Cup overall title for the first time since 2007 — Vonn traveled to Europe, ostensibly alone for the first time in 11 years. But Vonn was not exactly unaccompanied. In Europe, where she is a top-tier athletic luminary, she was stalked by reporters watching her every move on and off the mountain.

At the hub of the isolation and the adulation, Vonn found unprecedented success, becoming the first American to win four World Cup overall titles. And, she reclaimed some of the essential purpose of her chosen, highly individual sport.

“I realized for the first time in my life I was skiing for myself,” she said. “I had always had a lot of people helping me — my dad when I was younger, then Thomas, and my sponsors. And sometimes, I think I skied for those other people.

“This year, I realized that I’m the only one in the start gate and I’m the only one deciding what line to ski and how fast. That was really empowering. It was kind of like being a kid again, skiing for yourself and having fun with it.”

The result was a breakout season, if there is such a thing for an Olympic champion. Vonnwas on the top of the podium in events like the giant slalom that she had never won before, and she became even more dominant in her featured events, like the downhill. She increased her career World Cup victory total to 53, in easy reach of the women’s career mark of 62 wins and conceivably in range of Ingemar Stenmark’s record 86 career victories. Vonn, 27, says she expects to race for at least three more years, if not longer.

“We’ll see; it’s up to me,” she said. “I am now responsible for everything in my life.”

Not that the added responsibility is entirely comforting. She described a January night in St. Moritz, Switzerland, when she might usually have been celebrating victories in two of three races over a weekend. Instead, in her hotel room, she spent four hours going over legal papers related to her divorce.

Vonn said last week that she had been contemplating a divorce for “months, years, quite a few months.”


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