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Welcome to Retirement: Lindsey Vonn Confronts Life After Skiing

Vonn is a three-time Olympic medalist with 82 World Cup golds, an internationally renowned comeback artist, and one of the most dominant American athletes of a generation. She is also, as of February, no longer skiing. So what will she do next?

Juliette Toma

The celebratory goats were waiting for Lindsey Vonn to arrive home from Sweden. One of them chilled in the kitchen, slathered in buttercream, its bony white cake legs tucked beneath its cake body, an edible Olympic medal hung around its neck. Another goat, stuffed and stoic, was propped expectantly on a bed. The door opened and in walked Vonn, a real live GOAT, who just a day earlier had skied the last race in her decorated 17-year career and was now crossing the threshold into the rest of her life.

Her boyfriend (and since August, fiancé), the 30-year-old NHL defenseman P.K. Subban, filmed Vonn’s reaction for Instagram. She regarded the various goat paraphernalia and the balloons wishing her a HAPPY RETIREMENT with the weary appreciation of someone who had just spent 18 hours schlepping from Are, Sweden, to Nashville, Tennessee, only to arrive home to both a camera-phone and a reminder of the unstoppable passage of time. “The pink ski poles!” she exclaimed, looking at the elaborate alpine caprine confection on the table and also looking totally spent.

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Back in the mix! ☝

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“He had it custom made,” Vonn says the following February night, explaining the goat cake. “You know him.” The Nashville Predators are hosting the Detroit Red Wings at Bridgestone Arena, and as Subban skates around on the ice, Vonn is up in the box seats, wearing a powder-blue turtleneck and a leopard-print coat, her hair long and icy. She gushes over Subban, whom she has dated since 2018, and mocks him in equal measure. “Well, it wasn’t him,” she says. “It was his assistant. But, like, it’s the thought that counts.” She pulls up a photo of the goat cake on her phone: It has an uncanny valley weirdness to it, and also similar vibes to that red velvet armadillo from Steel Magnolias. A hunk is missing from its haunches. “It actually tastes good,” Vonn says. “I ate its ass!”

In October 2018, Vonn announced the beginning of the end of her ski racing days. Since her first professional race as a teen in 2000, Vonn had earned three Olympic and seven World Championship medals. She had won 82 races on the World Cup circuit, far more than any other woman. She’d also had surgery going-on-seven times. Vonn said that the 2018-19 skiing season would be her last, and that she intended to make sure it was more than just a farewell tour. Her goal was to win five more races and surpass the all-time record of 86 World Cup victories, held since 1989 by Swedish men’s skier Ingemar Stenmark. Camera crews would be on hand to document the process: HBO Sports green-lit a documentary on Vonn’s quest. And then pretty much nothing went as planned.

First Vonn crashed during a training run in Colorado last November, a crushing setback. Her “good” knee, already a bit of a tenuous concept, became her messed-up one. She waffled over whether and when to retire, changing her answer from soon to maybe next year to like, NOW in the course of a few weeks. She didn’t reach Stenmark’s record; she didn’t win another race. She crashed again, in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, and then again in Sweden, straddling a race gate and crashing face-first into a safety net and later joking to reporters during a long and candid press appearance that she was getting too old for this. Each time, the glum thought loomed for everyone watching: So, was that how it ends?

By the time Vonn stood at the starting block of the very last downhill race of her career on February 10, her body was in constant pain and she had a black eye. But she finished third in that last gutsy race, enough to win one last medal, and while it wasn’t gold, it still shone in the low winter light. Vonn jumped up and down on that third-place platform of the winner’s podium as if she were back on the top tier. “I’m going to put this next to the gold medals,” she told NBC about her bronze. The end of Vonn’s era felt both premature and overdue, and was at once a huge bummer and a sigh of relief.

“Retirement,” Vonn says two days into her own, as she watches hockey in Nashville, “is not like, ‘Oh, there’s next season, I just need to have surgery and it’ll all be fine.’ It’s a totally different goal altogether. It’s not even on the same page. It’s a completely separate chapter.” She has lived a lifetime of constant preparation: for her next competition, for her next operation. This process, so streamlined for so long, is now borderline obsolete, and despite all her experience Vonn feels like a rookie once more. “My mind’s kind of racing with all the things I want to do,” she says, having finished a racing career that thrived upon that mind staying still.

Lindsey Vonn was so great on the mountain because she was fearless, almost disturbingly so, willing to hurl herself down the iciest and most aggressive lines she could scope out on the race course. She excelled at the downhill, skiing’s most buckwild discipline, obtaining speeds of upward of 80 miles per hour. (In the upcoming HBO documentary, she tells viewers to stick their head out of the car window on the freeway sometime and says that’s how skiing feels on her face.)

Feeling constrained by her equipment about a decade ago, she started racing not only on men’s skis, but on the particular men’s skis preferred by guys like wild child Bode Miller and golden boy Ted Ligety—the stiffest and heaviest skis on the market, skis that were super hard to tame but super fast if you could do so, wild stallions attached to each boot.

In sketchy stretches where her competitors might focus on simply not careering out of control, Vonn sought more speed, doubling down, tucking her body and accelerating where others flailed. This sometimes meant careering out of control herself. “It’s like, I keep my foot on the gas until I’m literally in the fence,” Vonn says. “Most people would brake before they run their car off the edge of a cliff. I still have my foot on the gas trying to pull out of the crash while I’m going off the cliff.”

She won a lot of competitions, but also failed to even finish many others, sliding out of bounds or hitting a landing wrong, always a microscopic wobble away from disaster. But she never didn’t come back from a crash, even as her list of injuries mounted.

“I don’t know how she does a lot of the things that she does,” Subban says before the Red Wings game, standing in the Predators locker room. He is just getting back from an injury himself and can barely fathom what Vonn has done on her repaired bones and shredded joints. “But she does it,” he says, “and she’s really good at it, and it’s pretty awesome to be a part of it, and to watch it.” Next to him, goalie Pekka Rinne is succinct. “Obviously, she’s a legend,” he says.

When the Predators get off to a slow start in their game that night, said legend rolls her eyes and makes fun of the team’s power play, which she says Subban has recently admitted to her is the league’s fourth worst. “That sounds terrible,” she says, judgmental and right. Near the end of the second period, Subban scores a goal, and Vonn jumps to her feet. “Yes, babe!” she yells. “It’s funny because P.K. gives me shit about it,” she says of her newfound status as a former professional skier. “He’s like, you’re officially a WAG now. And I’m like, fuck you!”

For many people, the classic (if increasingly unobtainable) vision of retirement is that it’s an earned vacation, a circled and smiley-faced box on the calendar, a reward for a job well done. But for elite, freakish athletes like Vonn, who have spent their lives focused on a different kind of finish line, it’s a far more unsettling realm, like skiing into a vertiginous whiteout. “Things have not gone the way I had hoped,” Vonn says. “I always have a plan for everything, and I don’t really have a plan now.”

This isn’t exactly true. HBO’s documentary about her final season (appropriately called Lindsey Vonn: The Final Season) will air on November 26. She has been working on a memoir. Last year she and Subban took a several-day seminar at Harvard Business School, studying enterprises ranging from Facebook to Jay-Z, and she has projects in the works involving a beauty line and the Rock. (Separate projects, sadly.) She has a personal foundation and her three beloved dogs to attend to. But her unmoored feeling is completely understandable: She only just got home, and there is still tons of frosted goat butt left to consume, and there should be no rush to do anything whatsoever. Except that “no rush” is not an ethos Vonn has ever lived by.

All Olympic gold medals are technically the same, but certain ones—the 100-yard dash, the gymnastics all-around, the downhill—sometimes seem to have more heft to them. Vonn finished first in the downhill in Vancouver in 2010, gritting her way through a bruised shin (by rubbing cheese on it) and winning by more than half a second. She was the first American woman to win gold in the event, and it elevated her into a household name in a way that even dozens of World Cup wins don’t tend to do. Afterward, she told reporters: “I’m just happy with one. Anything else from here on out is a bonus.” Unfortunately, that attitude would wind up being tested in a way that she surely didn’t anticipate then.

Vonn dominated the World Cup for more than a decade, but her Olympics results never quite rose to the rest of her résumé. She won a bronze medal later in those 2010 Games, but her success in Vancouver was soured slightly by an ongoing story about whether or not she and her teammate Julia Mancuso had a feud that was affecting her performance. (“We’ve been racing each other since we were, like, 11,” Vonn says, rolling her eyes. “We’ve always kind of butted heads. It wasn’t something new, it just got picked up by media.”)

In 2013, leading up to the Sochi Olympics, Vonn was in the midst of some of her finest racing when she crashed during the super-G at the World Championships in Austria, had to be helicoptered to safety, and wound up getting surgery on multiple torn ligaments in her right knee. “My leg goes in a really gross position,” Vonn says of that accident. “That’s the one that really changed the course of my career, because I’d been so dominant. That was really in my prime.” She dedicated the 2018 Olympics in South Korea to the memory of her recently departed grandfather and said that she would have no interest in meeting President Donald Trump if she won gold. She veered off course and was disqualified in one race, came away with bronze in another, and still gets Twitter feedback about it from schaudenfreudistic trolls.

And so ultimately, her only gold came in Vancouver, and her own dad wasn’t even there to see it. Vonn grew up in Minnesota, the oldest of five children, in what she describes as “an amazing, literally a dream house in Minnesota that my dad had helped build.” (Alan Kildow, she says, even poured the concrete in the driveway.) But when the Kildow family moved to Vail to pursue the best ski training they could find for Vonn and her siblings—but mostly for Vonn—the real estate market didn’t afford quite the same space.

She recalls sharing a room in her family’s small condo with her two sisters, Karin and Laura; as the sisters got older, they took turns sleeping on the floor. “They don’t hold it against me,” Vonn says. When she was 16 she made the U.S. ski team and began spending more and more time training up in Park City. She began dating one of her teammates, Thomas Vonn, who was nine years her senior and clashed with her father about it. By the time they married, in 2007, Lindsey was 22; Thomas had transitioned from fellow skier to a sort of hybrid of manager, partner, and coach. Alan Kildow wasn’t invited to the wedding, nor was he present at the 2010 Olympics.

It was one of several times that Vonn’s personal life made its way into the press. In 2011, when she filed for divorce, that made headlines. She reconciled with her father, a lawyer who helped her with the divorce. She dated Tiger Woods for three years and was subject to all the attendant scrutiny: The relationship famously did not end well, but on the bright side, she says, Woods introduced her to spearfishing, one of the few activities she’s found that can truly relax her. As Vonn spent more time in the spotlight away from the mountain over the years, she felt increasingly out of her comfort zone.

”I felt like after I won the Olympics in 2010, I had a strong feeling that I wasn’t good enough,” she says. “I was starting to do red carpets, and one of these is not like the other—I was bigger, and just different, and it took me a long time to really be comfortable with that.”

When HBO tapped Teton Gravity Research, the beloved outdoor and extreme sports production company based in Wyoming, to chronicle Vonn’s last season, it was supposed to be “like, this, just kind of rock-and-roll tour,” says Todd Jones, the cofounder of TGR, in a phone conversation this summer. Skiing can tend to disappear from the radar of the general population in non-Olympic seasons, with U.S. coverage receding to the background. But in that background is where the bulk of professional competition takes place, as athletes travel the world from one event to another on the World Cup circuit, competing in front of passionate, knowledgeable, bundled-up crowds.

That’s where Vonn amassed her 82 wins. (The second-most-decorated woman is Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Proll, who has 62 World Cup golds, followed by 24-year-old American star Mikaela Shiffrin with 60.) Jones and his crew were set to follow Vonn around the globe for a few months to see whether she could win five more. They would go from her favorite venue, Lake Louise in Alberta (where she has been so dominant over the years that there is a run named after her), to Sochi, Russia (where the narrative would have been simple: Vonn competes in the place where she missed the 2014 Olympics with an ACL tear in the prime of her career), capturing all the beer steins and cowbells and training sessions and tears in between.

Before the travel kicked off, the crew all dispersed back to their respective homes for about a week for, as Jones puts it, “a quick Thanksgiving hit.” But on the Tuesday before the holiday, the news trickled out: Vonn had wiped out while practicing at Copper Mountain in Colorado and injured her left knee. The good news was that surgery could be put off. The bad news was that Vonn wouldn’t be able to ski for at least a few weeks, making her chances of actually winning five more races slim to none. In the context of Vonn’s alternatively high-flying and frustrating history, this was highly unfortunate and also totally fitting.

Even after following Vonn over the years, even after knowing about her reputation for going hard and going home (by medevac helicopter, sometimes), even when remembering the catastrophic wipeouts and the Olympics-pegged comeback montages on NBC, it is still jarring to consider a list of her injuries. “I mean, for how many crashes I’ve actually had,” Vonn says, “the fact that I haven’t been injured more is a miracle.” Her physical destruction includes but is not limited to: two ACL tears, multiple concussions, an MCL sheared from the bone, various breaks (pinky, wrist, ankle), something-something LCL, something-something meniscus—it all blends together in one big body horror.

At one point, describing the way she overcompensated away from one bad knee, she casually uses the phrase “continuously fracture” to describe the ramifications on the other one, as if she’s talking about some mild irritation, like bug bites or dry mouth. There is a scene in Lindsey Vonn: The Final Season involving a giant syringe, her knee, and Ecto Cooler–colored fluid that ought to come with a viewer warning. Her workouts are a little constrained, she says in the film, because she can’t really run or jump. Vonn is an active, stubborn patient who wants to know everything. “If there’s a fracture,” she says, “at what angle is it detrimental to be at? I like knowing those things because then I know what type of risk I’m taking. I’m very calculated.”

She once sliced her thumb open while popping a bottle of celebratory champagne, a little too on-the-nose. In 2017, she fractured her humerus and endured nerve pain that was worse and scarier than just about anything she’d ever dealt with in her knee. She remembers that she had to take a truck on a dirt road to the hospital, and screamed with every bump. She couldn’t hold a pencil and had to duct tape her hands to her ski poles when she returned to the course, because of course she returned, again and again, each comeback more painful than the one before, because the only thing more disorienting than tumbling helmet-over-boots down the mountain was the thought of not racing anymore.

Everyone asks Vonn the same thing: After all the crashes and the surgeries, standing up there at the start of a run, doesn’t she get scared? “I’m really good at erasing things,” she says, trying to describe how she can begin to mentally move past a catastrophic crash (and sounding kind of like Will Hunting describing how some people see Mozart where others see only “Chopsticks”). Asked if she’s able to watch footage of her harrowing falls, she responds quickly, “It doesn’t faze me at all.” Asked if she can think of a time that getting hurt had lasting mental ramifications during racing, she says, firmly, “Never. It’s all physical.”

But there are two times in the past year or so when she admits to being nervous, and both have to do with the rest of her life. “Last year,” Vonn says, her confident tone evaporating, “last spring, I went to Harvard for a four-day business class, and it scared the shit out of me.”

Anita Elberse, the 46-year-old Harvard Business School professor who teaches the intensive Business of Entertainment, Media, and Sports course that Vonn attended, has crossed paths with a lot of high-profile individuals. Her Instagram timeline looks like Hollywood Squares: a grid of smiling, famous faces ranging from Chris Bosh to Chip and Joanna Gaines. Graduates of Elberse’s programs include model Karlie Kloss, running back Brandon Marshall, and Vonn and Subban. But even within this rarefied universe, Vonn’s application stood out. “There’s this question,” Elberse says this summer over the phone, “around how you heard about the course or who recommended it. And then it said: ‘The Rock.’ I thought that was a strong way to get into the class.”

Hearing Vonn speak in such hushed tones about a four-day crash course feels slightly absurd. Few events sit more squarely at the intersection of business, entertainment, media, and sports than the Olympic Games, and few Olympic athletes have had Vonn’s mix of longevity, success, name recognition, and narrative. “I think almost all of them are nervous because it’s an unusual kind of setting for them,” Elberse says about her class, which squeezes a semester’s worth of material into one long, networking-heavy weekend. “At the same time, I mean, [Vonn] is throwing herself off of a mountain, and you would think that this pales in comparison.”

The other thing that made Vonn feel nervous, this one uncharacteristically so, actually did have to do with throwing herself off a mountain. As Vonn prepared for her last-ever race in Sweden in February, it wasn’t the prospect of falling that was freaking her out, it was the finality. “I thought it must be bad for my health,“ Vonn says. “My blood pressure was so high for such an extended period of time.” This was new, and it was all being captured in excruciating and unrelenting detail by HBO and TGR production teams that were in the midst of their own uncertainty.

An assignment that had started out as a laudatory romp had turned into a more existential trudge; rather than traipsing on adrenaline from country to country gathering happy footage of Vonn airborne on a race course, or Vonn being feted by Austrians and Andorrans alike, the team had instead gotten real up close and personal to the nitty-gritty realities of the limitations of the human form.

Looking at some of Vonn’s famous classmates at Harvard, one thing that stands out is how rare it is to end an elite athletic career on truly glorious terms. Michael Strahan did it, winning a surprise Super Bowl as captain of the New York Giants and then immediately and seamlessly morphing into a legit TV megatalent, but he’s kind of the exception that proves the rule. (Before the class began, Strahan mentioned that he was nervous. “You’re nervous?!” Vonn blurted out.) For others like Andy Roddick, who won his lone Grand Slam title at age 21 then spent the next decade losing at the cold hand of Roger Federer, or Bosh, who won two satisfying titles in Miami but still had to leave the game early because of a life-threatening blood clot condition, there will always be big what-ifs, even if their lives reached heights that only handfuls of people ever know.

Vonn’s own career didn’t end precisely on her terms, which will forever nag at her, but it nevertheless ended well. Alan Kildow was in the crowd as she received her bronze medal. Jones had a cinematic climax to his documentary. “I was, like, are you fucking kidding,” says Jones. “She could barely walk and stuff. I was, like, I was literally in tears.”

Back in Nashville two days later, sitting and watching the hockey game, Vonn exists in the odd purgatory of the old pro; soon she will no longer be famous for skiing but instead for having used to. Knowing that Subban is slow to emerge from the locker room after games, she tries to bide some time by sitting on a sofa in the lobby outside the private boxes, but she’s too big of an attraction and gets essentially swarmed by one photo-seeking fan after another. “Lindsey, excuse me, she is a huge fan of yours,” says a parent thrusting a child toward Vonn. “Would you mind taking a picture with her?” The floodgates open and admirers emerge from the woodwork, starstruck and in some cases a little drunk: just one more, so sorry, been following for so long, do you mind? “You’re the bomb, Lindsey!” one man says.

Downstairs after the game, Subban excuses himself briefly to say hello to a donor who spent fifty grand at an annual gala for his foundation. Finally he and Vonn, holding hands, exit the arena. The next morning Vonn posts a Twitter video from bed of Subban shirtless and snoring. “Welcome to retirement life,” the caption says.

It didn’t take too long for a post-retirement Vonn to truly experience that WAG lifestyle. Early in the morning on June 22, Subban was traded from the Predators to the up-and-coming New Jersey Devils, a major transaction that caught much of the hockey world unaware but didn’t necessarily surprise Subban himself. (The defenseman correctly surmised that at $9 million annually, his hefty contract made him particularly susceptible to being dealt.) He and Vonn seemed to take the news in stride; for the second year in a row, they celebrated the Fourth of July by uploading a series of social media posts in which they took turns wearing the same skimpy America-themed bathing suit.

Still, the sudden move to the “tristate area, man,” as Vonn describes it, did give her a little bit of a jolt. While she was long accustomed to the nomadic disarray of the professional skiing tour, this was her first real experience with the rug-from-underneath-ya reality of major team sports.

“I’m like, ‘Oh shit. OK, I guess we’re not buying that house in Nashville and I’ll change my Zillow search to New Jersey,’” recalls Vonn, who pivoted to house-hunting outside of Newark. “We can’t live in New York because I’ve got three dogs and we want a backyard at least.” (One of her dogs, Lucy, who traveled with her on the World Cup circuit, has already been featured on the Devils’ Twitter account.) She won’t have to stress about finding a gym: In a convenient coincidence, her longtime personal trainer, Alex Bunt, moved from California to New Jersey not long ago, and he even did some work with Subban this summer.

In late July, the ordinarily understated Devils held a lively to-do introducing Subban that included both a drum line and the presentation of a red-and-white Ric Flair–style robe. During a press conference, a reporter remarked to the über-marketable defenseman that it must be nice to be so close to New York. “People mention New York a lot,” Subban said, playing the crowd like a fiddle, “but I don’t play for New York, I play for New Jersey.” Given all of her projects and promotions, though, it’s safe to assume that his better half has benefited from being near Manhattan this fall.

She has recently been promoting Project Rock, Dwayne Johnson’s Under Armour line, and working on her beauty brand in consultation with a Beverly Hills dermatologist and a New York City perfumery. Through her foundation, she launched an initiative to support STEM opportunities for girls. She’s in the midst of writing a memoir, which has been an intense personal experience. Being the subject of a documentary was one thing, but telling one’s own story can be a heavy mental lift. “It’s my life,” Vonn says. “I know what happened, so it should be easy. But at the same time, it’s really emotional and you just re-live everything.”

Vonn once thrived by letting her physical instincts take over and keeping her mind fearlessly and maybe necessarily blank. She had a small army of trainers and physical therapists throughout her career but almost never did any sports psychology, though she did keep a journal. (She describes many of her old entries as “too depressing.”) The process of doing the opposite of what she’s long been conditioned to do—digging into her memories, rather than hoping to discard them—has “actually been really therapeutic for me,” Vonn says. She says that two athletes whose retirement she admires are Kobe Bryant and Michael Phelps, and at a recent event in Philadelphia, she spoke about her experiences with depression, as Phelps has.

One of the most affecting parts of the HBO documentary is a series of scenes in which Vonn repeatedly insists she’s finished skiing, that her body is done for, that she can’t perform the way she wants and needs to—and her trainers and coaches keep pushing back. When an entire apparatus exists to optimize an athlete’s performance, to keep them motivated and riled up and returning again and again, no one knows quite what to do when the time comes to stop. There are new challenges in Vonn’s new life; recently, she smelled so many perfumes for her upcoming line that “I think my nose was going to fall off,” she says. In between samples, she sniffed coffee beans to reset her sense of scent, but even that wore her down: All that restarting and recalibrating is eventually too much. She just wants to go, to find the fastest way down the mountain, even if she’s still figuring out what her life’s topography will be. “I’m like, I don’t want to smell any more coffee beans!” Vonn says. “I’m like, I just want to drink it. I don’t want to smell it.”

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