Lindsey Vonn can’t remember her first time on skis. If she could, she wouldn’t be the overwhelming favorite to win gold in the downhill in Vancouver. Nearly all downhill skiing champions learned the sport between ages two and four. She’s also not British, Australian, Japanese, or Swedish, which is a plus. There’s an amazing pattern to the lives of top skiers like Vonn, from geography to upbringing, that gives them a huge advantage on the slopes. But it’s the way Vonn breaks this mold that makes her the greatest American downhiller—and can teach us all how to raise our game, regardless of sport or skill level.
Vonn’s preparation for the Olympics began 22 years ago in Minnesota. At the age of three, she took her first ski lessons on Buck Hill, a 309-foot-tall pile of dirt near her Twin Cities home. By age six, she was spending most winter afternoons there—two hours on weekdays and four hours a day on weekends. Unlike young skiers out West, who get distracted by the lure of wide-open spaces, Vonn focused on fundamentals, skiing Buck’s mini slalom course and taking tips from legendary Austrian junior ski racing coach Erich Sailer. “I got a lot of repetitions in and worked on my muscle memory,” she says. “If I was out West, I would’ve been doing more freeskiing and wouldn’t have built the technical base.”
By age seven, Vonn was taking annual family ski trips to the Rockies; every summer she’d enroll in a four-week camp on Mount Hood or in Europe. When she was 12, her family moved to Vail, Colorado, for her training. Vonn won her first international championship three years later and competed in her first Winter Olympics at 17. By then her competitive advantage over skiers who hadn’t started taking the sport seriously until their teens was almost insurmountable.