Published: December/January 2010
What makes an Olympian? Hint: It's not just genetics.
Text by Greg Melville

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.

The Physics of Winning

The downhill is the longest, fastest, and most technical event in skiing. Competitors hurtle down a two-mile course at 80-plus miles an hour, navigating icy turns, drops, and jumps. They only get one timed run. The difference between first and second place can be mere hundredths of a second—whic— makes the predictability of downhill results so surprising.

Every Olympic champion in the event has come from a country containing either the Alps or the Rockies. Why has no one from Great Britain, Australia, Japan, or Sweden ever struck gold? It’s not the size of their mountains at home, it’s the level of competition. “In the Alps, there are friendly races for the kids,” Vonn says. “In the U.S., there aren’t as many skiers, but you have people pushing you.” Her chief rival was Julia Mancuso, who is seven months older, raced Vonn in national competitions, and won gold in the 2006 games. “If Lindsey hadn’t had someone like Julia motivating her at a young age, she wouldn’t be the skier she is today,” says Jim Tracy, a coach for the U.S. Ski Team.

Vonn’s body mass is another advantage. In the past three decades, female gold medalists have gotten progressively taller and heavier. If Vonn wins, at 5'10" and 160 pounds she’ll be the biggest ever to do it. David Eyre, a former math professor at the University of Utah, explains: “It’s pure physics.” If a skier with more mass can get into a tighter tuck than her smaller competitors, she’ll create less drag and get down the slope a lot faster. “In other words, if you’re bigger and have better technique, you have a really significant advantage.”

And Vonn is living proof that you’re never too old—or too skilled—to perfect your technique. “When Lindsey’s training, she’s up an hour earlier than the others,” says Tracy. “She’s constantly improving her form to gain another three hundredths of a second in a race.” If she doesn’t win gold in Vancouver, someone very similar to her, like 5'9", 168-pound Maria Riesch of Germany, no doubt will. Some skinny little upstart from Sweden doesn’t stand a chance.

The Perfect Tuck

Lindsey Vonn minimizes wind resistance—and takes advantage of her size (5'10", 160 lbs)—by crouching into a tight tuck. Here’s how: Place your feet hip-width apart, press your chest to your knees, and try to snug your torso between your thighs. Keep your poles parallel to your skis.