VAL-D’ISERE, France: There are not many athletes in the sometime-closeted world of alpine skiing to have become household names on a global level, but American Lindsey Vonn is certainly one of them.
Prodigious talent and ability on the slope to one side, Vonn has allied her bubbly personality, good looks and, lately, her liaison with top golfer Tiger Woods with smart business acumen to capitalize her “branding”.
A savage fall at last February’s World Championships in Schladming saw her suffer terrible knee injuries, which required reconstructive surgery followed by months of rehabilitation.
But the 29-year-old has bounced back, taking to competition in three races at Lake Louise in the first week of December, not long after re-tweaking her rebuilt knee.
Vonn is being selective in what she chooses to race, skipping St Mortiz and Courchevel but appearing in Val d’Isere, a resort where she has enjoyed much success, with one eye always on the bigger objective.
“My goal is the Olympic Games, they’re in February and that’s more than enough time,” Vonn told the Red Bulletin magazine in a refreshingly frank interview.
“To win gold after this injury, personally that would be my greatest success. The accident was the lowest point in my career. Gold in Sochi would be my highest.”
Vonn admitted that she was confident of surpassing Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell’s record of 62 women’s World Cup victories—the American has 59—and even Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark’s male mark of 86.
“I’ve already been thinking about that. My current plan is to keep going until the 2015 World Cup. Then I’ll see how far away I am from that number and then I’ll decide what to do, whether I’ll keep going in every discipline or maybe just downhill and super-G and concentrate on that record,” she said.
“Records are the only thing which remains of an athlete. The only thing that people will remember.
“If I want to ensure that people don’t forget me, I can only stop once I’ve set the bar as high as possible for anyone coming after me.
“That means that as long as I can keep winning, I’ll keep skiing. Essentially it’s about what I leave behind and that means statistics, records.”
Vonn has found herself propelled into the tabloid spotlight after she started dating Woods, one of the most successful golfers of all time with 14 Major victories.
But she insists she would not have it any other way, crediting Woods with making her a “better athlete” for showing her unprecedented levels of professionalism, dedication to fitness and a mental toughness to resist pressure.
“He pushes himself a lot further than he perhaps needs to and to see that pushes me in turn,” she continued.
“There were moments at golf tournaments where I said to myself, ‘OK, Lindsey, this is the next level of self-confidence, concentration, control. When you make it to this level, it will make you a better skier’.
“This experience with Tiger will really help me at big events. At the Olympics or World Cup, it’s not just about the one-and-a-half minutes of racing: you’re there for two weeks and permanently in racing mode, everything’s significant, everyone’s looking at you.”
Vonn also acknowledged that she had overcome the “insanely stressful” habit of using popularity as a crutch to get over her own insecurity at times when she suffered from depression and before her divorce from former husband Thomas Vonn.
“I was almost addicted to people liking me, but the more I feel confident in myself, the less it matters to me what other people think about me,” she said.
The American also admitted to being a “brand” whose bottom line could only increase by high-profile—and sometime uncomfortable—media outings such as on the David Letterman and Jay Reno US television shows.
Celebrity status as Woods’ girlfriend had also upped tabloid interest.
“It’s fun, honestly, because it’s so absurd, much more so than I had imagined,” she said.
“One magazine wrote that I was moving to Pakistan because I didn’t want to have kids with Tiger. How do they come up with this stuff?
“Tiger and I had a lot of fun with that at breakfast: ‘Bye, honey, sorry, I’m leaving you. Pakistan awaits.’
“And he’s like: ‘Good luck, say hi to the Pakistani ski team for me’.”