The Lioness in Winter

The Lioness in Winter

A confident Lindsey Vonn enters the Pyeongchang Olympics as the most decorated woman skier in history. Still, there's something more at play for her, and it definitely won't come easy.

This story appears in GOLD RUSH: powered by espnW, a special collaboration with ESPN The Magazine for its Feb. 19 issue. Subscribe! For more on Vonn, watch E:60 on Feb. 18, at 9 a.m. ET on ESPN.

Three weeks before the 2017-18 World Cup downhill season, Lindsey Vonn stands at the pulpit of Milton United Methodist Church in Milton, Wisconsin, tears streaming down her cheeks. In her right hand, she clutches her champagne-colored cellphone with the outline of her speech. In her left hand, she squeezes a ball of rolled-up tissues.

On this chilly November morning, she isn't just a four-time overall World Cup champion or a head-turning magazine cover star. She's the oldest grandchild of Don Kildow, a Korean War veteran who died 10 days earlier at age 88. It was Grandpa Don who founded the local ski club and introduced the sport to his family. Grandpa Don who spent his life working in construction, passing on his tireless work ethic to his family. "You better become friends with pain because you're going to have it your entire life," he often said.

Two days before Grandpa Don died, Vonn spoke to him for the last time. During their phone call, she said she missed him. She loved him. He replied the same, adding how proud he was of everything she had accomplished. Now he was gone. And here was Vonn, in her grandparents' small-town church, grasping for the one emotion Grandpa Don helped instill: strength.

E:60 follows Lindsey Vonn as she prepares for the Winter Olympics in South Korea. Tune in for the full feature on February 18 at 9 a.m. ET on ESPN.

On any other day, Vonn would be the picture of grit, defiance and unwavering confidence. She is the winner of 81 World Cup races, more than any other woman. She has overcome blown-out knees, a shattered humerus, a broken ankle, a severed tendon in her hand, a failed marriage and a complicated relationship with her father to become arguably the greatest skier of all time.

But now she couldn't escape to a mountain or pretend everything was fine. Instead, in a simple black dress with her hair pulled back in a bun, tears fell. Her voice cracked. She told stories about her grandfather coming home on sweltering summer afternoons covered in sweat, grease and a smile. She thanked him for teaching the family to never quit. And she vowed to dedicate her upcoming season -- including the 2018 Winter Olympics -- to his memory.

But if there's one thing to know about Lindsey Vonn, it's that nothing ever comes easy.

Lindsey Vonn and her grandfather, Don Kildow, were extremely close. She says he will be with her in spirit as she competes in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Courtesy Lindsey Vonn

ELEVEN DAYS AFTER the funeral, on Thanksgiving eve, Vonn nestles into the corner of the cream-colored couch in her home in Vail, Colorado. Lucy, her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, snoozes on her lap. The emotions of her grandfather's death are still raw. She struggles to talk about him without her eyes watering. But she insists she's found peace on the mountain, as always. And right now, with one more week until the start of the upcoming season, she feels as confident on skis as she has in years.

She is without question one of the most famous athletes in the world. Part of that is her unparalleled success on the mountain. Part of that is her runway model looks. And yes, part of it is the two-plus years she spent dating Tiger Woods. But the heart of her story has little to do with the tabloid details of her personal life or the red-carpet snapshots in which her world seems obnoxiously perfect. Instead, it's about a stubborn woman who never met a challenge she could walk away from. A little girl whose family moved halfway across the country and sacrificed everything so she could succeed. And a world champion who seems to have it all but has battled depression.

"When I'm on the hill, no one can touch me. I'm tough and determined and I believe in myself," she says. "But off the hill, I have a very difficult time feeling confident. I just never really feel good enough off the slope. Maybe that's why I love skiing so much."

Three of Vonn's four siblings and her dad have made the trip to Colorado for the holiday, vowing to spend more time together in the wake of Grandpa Don's death. For much of the winter, family time is rare. "I've spent many a Christmas in hotel rooms by myself," she says. "It's a far less glamorous life than people realize."

On this night, Vonn's sister Laura and brother Reed race to see who can dice tomatoes faster. Her father, Alan Kildow, whom everyone calls Big Al, holds court. And her sister Karin rags on a magazine story calling fellow American Mikaela Shiffrin the greatest skier of all time. Shiffrin is a 22-year-old prodigy on pace to break many of Vonn's records, but the GOAT label doesn't exactly sit well in these parts. Vonn responded to the story by tweeting, then later deleting, a screenshot of her accomplishments. Shiffrin replied that Vonn is the unquestioned best ever.

You might think such talk wouldn't bother the most decorated woman skier in history. A tour through Vonn's house is like walking through a ski museum. There are trophies, plates and medals at every turn, from the custom-built shelves on both sides of her fireplace to the family room cabinets. Upstairs, there are more globe-filled shelves and drawers with medals, ribbons and cowbells from all the way back to her days as a junior. She's kept it all. Her goal is to finish her career as the best ever-man or woman. That means adding to the two Olympic medals she won in Vancouver and breaking Ingemar Stenmark's 29-year-old record of 86 World Cup wins.

"I need to do it," she says of eclipsing Stenmark's record. "As in, I am not going to stop skiing until I reach that. That's your legacy. That's what people will remember. I don't want to have to say the greatest female skier. I want to say the greatest skier. I've never been in this for second place."

Vonn's goal is to finish her career as the best-ever skier, male or female. Agence Zoom/Getty Images

NINE DAYS LATER, less than 100 seconds into the first downhill race of the 2017-18 season, that confidence is gone. Four gates from the finish, Vonn finds herself in an orange mesh safety fence screaming for help. She had led the Lake Louise downhill for all five intervals when the slightest technical mistake -- shifting her weight from the outside edge of her inside ski to the inside edge of her outside ski -- sent her legs into the splits. Traveling at 64.8 mph, her momentum tossed her into the fence and left her a tangled mess. "Like a flapping fish," she says.

It was an all-too-familiar scene. In the first 11 years of her career, Vonn crashed or did not finish in 14 downhill or super-G races. This was her eighth DNF in the past two and a half seasons. Part of it is bad luck. Part poor conditions. And part just Lindsey being Lindsey, either unable or unwilling to adjust to her body's limits at age 33. "Sometimes I push myself too far," she says. "I take a line that is either win or crash, you know? Most of the time I find that line, but sometimes I go a little overboard." After that happens, she has only one question: When can she get back on the mountain? Even in 2016, when she shattered the humerus in her right arm and couldn't pick up a pencil for months, she never thought about walking away. No way would her family suggest it either.

"It's not like it would matter," says her mother, Lindy Lund. "That's just who she is. She doesn't care."

Says Vonn: "I think sometimes about long-term damage ... but you know, I feel like life is short. You have to use whatever you have until it's gone. By the time I retire ... they can just stem-cell me a new meniscus and do a knee reconstruction and I'll be good to go. I'm counting on the doctors."

After untangling herself from the fence in Lake Louise, she begins the full-body survey. Her right knee is throbbing but intact. Nothing feels broken. She asks Chris Knight, her coach, "Was I winning?" She doesn't like the answer. She clamps back into her skis, carefully finishes her run and immediately leaves for treatment. Her right knee looks like a balloon. But she races the next day anyway, finishing 12th. On Sunday, in the super-G, she races again. She crashes again.

Though the ligaments in her knee are fine, there is damage to her cartilage and meniscus. Of greater concern is her confidence. She wonders whether this is the beginning of the end. She picks up the phone and calls the one man she knows can help.

"Dad," she says. "Will you come with me to Europe?"

A crash in the Lake Louise downhill left Vonn with an injured knee and a crisis of confidence. Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports

THERE WAS A time when Alan Kildow was the last man Lindsey would have wanted at the finish. At the world championship in Bormio, Italy, in 2005, she specifically told him not to come. He showed up anyway. Don Kildow's son subscribes to the Lombardi style of coaching. "There are two places in a race," he says, "first and last."

Alan Kildow was a junior national champion himself and had visions of competing in the Olympics when he blew out his knee at age 18, ending his competitive career. As a father, he put his kids on skis when they were toddlers. By 5, they started racing. No one loved it more than Lindsey. Her coach initially joked that she was as slow as a turtle, but by the age of 10, she was beating older boys and signing autographs.

Two years later, Alan put together a five-year plan to help Lindsey make the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. It involved moving the family from just outside Minneapolis to Vail. Living in pricey Vail was a stretch. The kids would often sleep on the floor of the condo. There were rules like never buying groceries that weren't on sale. Not until after the following ski season did Lindsey's parents tell the kids they sold the house in Minnesota. "They could have handled it better," Vonn says. "We had a great life, and all of a sudden everyone was uprooted and moved into this condo. It was a complete 180, all for me to pursue my dreams. At that point, I knew I had to succeed. Failure wasn't an option."

The plan worked. In 2002, at age 17, Vonn competed in the Salt Lake Olympics and finished sixth in the combined -- the best finish for any U.S. woman. "People would ask me all the time," says Alan Kildow, "'Are you living vicariously through your daughter and your kids?' And I'd say 'Absolutely.' Of course it was great to see someone be able to achieve something I did not."

Around that same time, Lindsey met U.S. skier Thomas Vonn, who was nine years older. Lindsey's dad wasn't a fan. But the more her dad pushed back, the closer the couple grew. They married in 2007. Kildow wasn't invited.

"I got engaged and he lost his s---," Vonn says. "That was pretty much the end of that. He's really stubborn, as am I. We both dug our feet in. And the six years that were probably the height of my career, I didn't have any connection to my dad at all. It sucked."

KILDOW SAYS HE called and emailed his daughter "but got nothing back."

"It was very disappointing," he says. "I won't sugarcoat it. You have to realize this is a child who is making a statement about being independent and accept that it's a phase and it's going to pass. And it did."

Lindsey and Thomas Vonn divorced in 2011. During that process, Lindsey called her dad and suggested he come by. "We skied together like nothing had ever happened," Kildow says. "And our relationship has been great ever since."

"I like having him in my life more," Vonn says. "He's getting older. I'm getting older. I'm just trying to enjoy every minute I have with him."

After Vonn's crash at Lake Louise, Kildow could sense that his daughter's confidence was waning. He reminded her that she was the same world-class skier the day before Lake Louise as she was after. A week later in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Vonn hit a hole that caused a dislocation of one of her vertebrae. "When I went into the trailer, she was lying on the floor covered in blankets, writhing in pain," Kildow says.

She again refused to quit. Beyond the lessons of Grandpa Don, there was the plight of her mother, who'd suffered a stroke and nearly died after giving birth to Lindsey. Says Lund: "They would ask me, 'What's your baby's name?' and I'd say 'Agatha?' It didn't compute." Her left side was paralyzed after the stroke, and she endured months of rehab before being able to live a relatively normal life. She would go on to have four more children but still walks with a limp.

"I have so much respect for her," Vonn says. "When I get injured, I think about my mom, and it puts things in perspective."

After the back injury in St. Moritz, Kildow says his daughter privately wondered whether she would ever win again -- all while she was dealing with a social media firestorm after saying she wouldn't accept an invitation to celebrate with President Trump at the White House if she were to win gold at the Olympics. Some cheered her injury in St. Moritz, wishing death or paralysis on the skier. "It was a bit extreme," she says. "But you just have to move on."

Two weeks later in Val d'Isere, France, in the last race before Christmas, she won the super-G. Afterward, she skied to her father and hugged him. They thought of Grandpa Don. She would share later on Instagram, "Tears of joy. I just did what Dad told me to do, never ever give up. Love you, Dad."

"That race showed her that her time hadn't passed," Kildow says. "Which I already knew. But she needed to believe it."

Entering the Pyeongchang Games, Vonn has won 81 World Cup races in her career. Millo Moravski/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

IN LATE JANUARY, at the end of a dimly lit street in the Austrian Alps, Vonn sits on an ivory leather couch in her motor home, slicing mushrooms. Her right leg is elevated to her side, wrapped in a brace to ease the swelling from a weekend of racing. The crash in Lake Louise has led to a season of knee nurturing.

"It's a bit of a war zone in there," she says. "There are cartilage chunks and meniscus flaps and little guys just dealing with a lot. That crash kind of sped up the odometer quite a bit. I definitely have fewer miles left than I had before."

Knight, Vonn's coach, says her body is only "50 to 60 percent" of what it once was. "But 50 to 60 percent still puts her in the top two or three athletes in the world in terms of downhill and super-G," Knight says. "No question."

The races in Bad Kleinkirchheim were the ultimate test of Vonn's win-or-crash mentality. She's never liked the track, and the course was essentially frozen mashed potatoes. In one training run, a competitor from Bulgaria blew out her knee, her Olympic hopes over. Four gates into the downhill race, Vonn started sliding and shifted into "'Do your best' mode." The result: 27th place. "I was waving the white flag the entire way down," she says.

Five hours after the race, Vonn sits in her RV, wearing a baggy black sweatshirt and sweatpants. She is about to take her first bite of chicken curry when she pauses, looks at her trainer to the right and her RV driver to the left and smiles. "Aww," she says. "Sunday family dinner. This is so nice."

Life on the road is largely lived in a bubble, with Vonn mobbed from the moment she arrives at the ski hill until the moment she leaves. At the end of it all, she returns to her hotel room or RV by herself. It's not hard to imagine someone getting lonely or depressed, especially when injured or struggling. Vonn acknowledges that she's like millions of other people who live with depression. It's one of the reasons she takes Lucy on the road.

"I have good days and bad days," she says. "It's like anything, you take medication for it and it makes it better, but it doesn't go away.

"I've learned to understand more of who I am and what I need as a person. But I'm very aware that I don't know it all and I don't know myself as well as I could. It's a constant learning process to be a better person and a better athlete. That's all you can do."

There was a time when her dad was the last person Vonn wanted to see at a race. But now, Vonn enjoys having her father in her life. Andrew Dampf/AP Photo

AT SOME POINT shortly after 11 a.m. local time on Saturday, Feb. 17, Lindsey Vonn will step into the starting gate for the Olympic super-G race at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre outside Pyeongchang, South Korea, and look to the valley below. A locket with her grandfather's ashes will hang from her neck. A sticker on the back of her helmet will commemorate his initials: DLK.

She had always imagined taking Grandpa Don back to South Korea, the country he helped defend in the Korean War. At the end of her speech at his memorial service, she began to accept the fact that he will be there in spirit. "I know Grandpa won't be missing the upcoming Olympics," she said that day. "He will be in the starting gate with me."

Vonn's relationship with the Olympics is complicated. She suffered a vicious crash in 2006 in Torino and needed to be airlifted off the mountain. The next day, barely able to walk, she still finished sixth in the downhill, winning the U.S. Olympic Spirit Award that now sits on her mantel. In Vancouver, she won gold in the downhill and bronze in the super-G. She missed the Sochi Olympics because of a knee injury. "So yeah," she says, "I've been waiting eight f---ing years for the Olympics."

She's also expected to compete in the downhill and combined. Vonn's parents, now divorced, will watch from the finish. Her plan is to put everything on the line. That's what Grandpa Don would have demanded. And that's the only thing she can live with.

"I've only got so many miles left," she says. "My account is almost overdrawn. So the plan is to withdraw everything I have in South Korea and gamble it all away. Three races. No fear. Everything I have. Either I win or I eat s---. It's one of the two. That's all I can do."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN. He can be reached at