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Vail, Colo., is understandably proud to call Lindsey Vonn its hometown hero. But here in Minnesota, we know better. The fastest female skier on the planet is clearly a citizen of the world: Click on her Facebook page, and you will find her posting from Switzerland one day, New Zealand another and on to outposts in Bulgaria, Sweden, Russia, Germany, Chile — wherever the ski slope calls. She speaks fluent German. She keeps a pet cow (her trophy from a 2005 win in Val d’Isère, France) on a farm near the U.S. Ski Team’s training base in Austria. And she is equally at ease accepting a gold medal on a podium in Vancouver, Canada, as she is posing on a mountaintop in a race suit and stilettos for the cover of Italy’s Sportweek. 

Yes, Vonn, 28, is an international superstar. But deep down, the winner of an Olympic gold medal, 57 World Cup titles and Olympe the cow is still the kid who took her first run not in the Rockies or the Alps but at Buck Hill in Burnsville. Back then, she was super slow but relentless, tireless, fearless — a Minnesotan through and through. As her close friend Vanessa Larsen told Sports Illustrated, “Here’s what she is: She’s a total Midwestern, sweet, normal girl.” 

A sweet Midwestern girl who this season has shown the world a whole new kind of fight and grit. In December, Vonn stunned fans by revealing to People magazine that she has been keeping a secret: a long-time battle with depression so serious, she said, she couldn’t get out of bed.

And in another surprising move from the athlete who has been racing since she was in elementary school, Vonn announced on her Facebook page she is taking a break from World Cup competition due to a serious intestinal infection that sent her to the hospital for several days last November. Though she went on to win four World Cup races, she explained, “I have been struggling with my energy and strength. I believe that some time off the mountain will help me regain the physical strength that I require to compete at the level that I demand from myself.”

Vonn has been adamant that her decision has nothing to do with the depression. In fact, she told People, with the help of therapy and antidepressants she is in a “new chapter in my life. And I’m happy for the first time in a really long time.”

No one doubts Vonn will be back chasing the big wins, but even before she took some time off to heal, she clearly was loving life’s little victories, like finding time to have brunch with her beloved grandpa and grandma Kildow. “Made it to my grandparents’ house safe and sound,” Vonn told Facebook fans last April. “I’m so happy to have some quality time with the fam.” Asked by Artful Living what she misses most about Minnesota, she doesn’t have to think twice: “My family!” 

Given the vast flatness of her home state, the only American woman ever to win Olympic gold in skiing doesn’t get home as much as she might like. 

Until her hiatus, as she traveled the world this season with the U.S. Ski Team, battling wind, ice and the ever-present pressure of Slovenia’s Tina Maze nipping at her ski boots in her pursuit of the record for World Cup wins (Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Pröll holds the title with 62), Vonn’s greatest comfort was the company her younger sister, Laura Kildrow. She had taken a year off from her studies at the University of Iowa to be at Vonn’s side. But quality time with the rest of the family — her three other siblings, mother Linda Krohn and father Alan Kildow, with whom she recently ended a six-year-estrangement — is just one of the many things Vonn has had to sacrifice to become The Greatest Athlete Ever to Come Out of Minnesota. As Vonn has said: “If you love what you do, you have to give it everything you have.”

And you have to do it with a smile. Famous for her grueling six-hour workouts and a Spartan lifestyle that allows for the occasional piece of dark chocolate, hot bath and episode of Law & Order, Vonn almost always ends her social-media posts with a 🙂 xoxo — or at the very least a handful of !!!!s. For years, her trademark good cheer (let’s call it what it is: Minnesota Nice) may have hidden her struggle with depression. But it also belies the fight of a fearless risk taker. “She wants to push her limits,” Laura wrote of her sister’s racing philosophy in a blog post last October. “She has a high tolerance for pain. She always gets back up.” 

Still, while on her way to winning 12 World Cup races last season (the most ever for a U.S. racer), Vonn had to fight through more than the usual pain — the kind that a splint and a smear of Lidocaine or even a time-out from the mountain can’t fix. In November 2011, Vonn announced the end of her marriage to Thomas Vonn, 37, a former U.S. Ski Team member and Olympic athlete who had been her coach, manager, ad-hoc sports psychologist and business advisor. She had reached a state of misery, she admitted, “where I said, ‘I don’t care if I ever win another race; I just can’t live like this.’” She filed for divorce with great sadness, she said in a statement, adding that she was going through “an extremely difficult time in my personal life.”

The news stunned the outside world. After all, the two had seemed a storybook couple since they exchanged vows during a snowy ceremony at the base of a Utah mountain in 2007. Just 19 years old when she moved in with the racer nine years her senior, Lindsey clearly counted on Thomas for support in a high-stress world. It was he who calmed her when a bad case of nerves hit before the world championship downhill race in 2009; he who radioed up to Lindsey, offering last-minute counsel before her gold medal downhill a year later; he who kept, as he told Sports Illustrated, “the messes off her plate so she can concentrate on training and racing.”

It was also he who helped her get out of bed in the morning when her depression was so bad, she said, she felt “hopeless, empty, like a zombie.” It was Thomas who finally urged his wife to seek professional help. As she said: “He was there for me.” 

But in the end, marriage to the man she once called her rock “just wasn’t working,” Lindsey told People. “Nothing bad happened, but there was just unhappiness.” Days after announcing the split, Lindsey blew away the competition during training for the World Cup downhill race at Lake Louise in Canada — besting the skier behind her by an almost unheard of 1.67 seconds and setting the stage for her record-setting season. If Thomas was her rock, it seems life without that heavy weight has left Lindsey with a lighter step. It also left her with a new outlook — as evidenced in less than ideal circumstances when, just weeks after the season ended, news broke that she owed $1.7 million in unpaid taxes. Immediately, fans blamed her husband-manager, and while Lindsey (who quickly paid the debt) did not name names, she did uncharacteristically comment about the very personal matter on Facebook. “This is an important lesson for me,” she wrote. “Not being in control of my finances and relying on someone else who you believed had your best interest at heart was a mistake and one I will not make twice.”

In the wake of her split from Thomas, the lesson was not just about her finances; it was about empowerment. As her friend, mentor and fellow Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street told EpicLife: “She wanted her life back. I’m proud of her for getting in the driver’s seat and controlling her destiny.” 

Truth told, her husband was not the first man Lindsey experienced as both a blessing and a burden. While she has credited her father, a Minneapolis attorney and former U.S. junior skiing champion, with pushing her to be her best, she has also blamed him for pushing her too hard in her junior years, causing a rift in their relationship. The bad blood worsened when he expressed vehement disapproval of her relationship with Thomas, and father and daughter stopped speaking even before the wedding. Or rather, daughter stopped speaking. Alan says he never stopped reaching out, leaving Lindsey phone messages and emails, but she did not return them — until she split from Thomas and ended her six-year silence with a phone call to Dad. Addressing their rocky past “was hard, really hard — but we talked it through,” says Lindsey. 

Her decision to reconnect with her father seems to signal a reconnection to her inner alpha female — especially after dealing with her depression. She told People she had suffered secretly since her teens. “Because of my stubbornness or shame or not wanting to admit something was wrong,” she said, “I didn’t do anything about it.” Emboldened in her personal life, she also found a new self-confidence on the slopes. “I didn’t give myself enough credit in the past,” she told Epiclife. “I found strength in myself.” 

And that strength is something she is determined to pass along. In Vail this winter, girls age 5 to 15 are taking to the slopes in a new program called Ski Girls Rock, designed by Lindsey to teach skills on and off skis. “I’ve always firmly believed that sports build teamwork skills, self-confidence and a sense of empowerment,” Lindsey, who personally trains instructors in her philosophy, told EpicLife. “Combine that with a group of girls and strong female role models, and the sky is the limit.” 

Lindsey’s love of the sisterhood has always been powerful, and she refuses to bend to anyone else’s definition of what kind of a role model she should be. At 5’10” and 160 pounds of pure muscle, she loves short skirts and high heels, and was caught on camera dabbing on makeup moments after winning her Olympic gold. Vain? Perhaps. Call it a woman’s prerogative — especially a woman who can whoosh down a mountain at 70 mph. So was posing in a bikini for the 2010 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, for which some fans gave her flack. But Lindsey only cared about one opinion: “I have to get approval from my grandma,” she admitted. “Otherwise I’m in big trouble.” 

As Lindsey well knows, like the crashes that come out of nowhere, trouble can come unexpectedly in the world of elite racing. And so it did in St. Moritz in December, when Minnesota Nice momentarily gave way to Minnesota Naughty: Lindsey crossed the finish line to beat Tina Maze by .37 seconds for the win in a super-G World Cup race — and swore. Maze’s boyfriend and trainer, Andres Massi, filed an official complaint for “unsportsmanlike behavior,” a move that stunned Lindsey, who said she was merely expressing relief about a hard-fought win, not dissing Maze. “It definitely hurts,” she told reporters. “I would never say anything bad about another athlete at the finish.”

Or at any other time, for that matter. To Lindsey, the accusation was more than inaccurate; it was unthinkable. She sought out Maze and told her, “I hope you trust me enough to believe me.” Apparently, she did — as did the officials who reviewed the tape, who accepted Lindsey’s explanation and dismissed the complaint. Later, the two athletes hugged on the podium, living examples of the anti-mean girl female-bonding spirit Lindsey hopes to instill with Ski Girls Rock. As she well knows, the women she skis against (including her teammates) are her friends as well as competitors. “Tina has had an amazing season so far,” an admiring Lindsey said of her top rival. Maze echoed the emotion: “I wanted to win, but Lindsey was better. It was fun to ski today.”

And after a lifetime of hard work, hard knocks, heartbreaking setbacks and heart-pounding victories, the most successful alpine skier in the history of the sport is after just that: fun. “I was skiing every race like it was my last, but I took myself too seriously,” says Lindsey of her attitude in the past. Lightening up has meant letting go. When she won her Olympic gold in 2010, she knew right where she wanted to put it: on the mantel in the home she shared with her husband, right next to his bowling trophy. Where is it now? “No place special,” she says. 

It’s not that Lindsey doesn’t value the win. In fact, she expects to be back on the mountain in 2013 and is already looking forward to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the 2015 World Championships in Vail. It’s just that things seem to feel easier, less rigid, less of her trademark pushing limits, tolerating pain mode and more, well, more 🙂 these days. As she told EpicLife, “A lot of circumstances in my life changed this year and made me realize that I can just ski and have fun.” 

And her more than half a million Facebook fans are along for the ride — including some 52,000 who liked a shot of Lindsey in her race suit, a black bra and heels in Italy last March and another 10,000-plus who liked a photo of her in a red bikini on a beach in the South of France last May. “Vacation was amazing!” she wrote. “I’m so sad to leave this amazing place but it’s time to go back to work…training starts early tomorrow morning…goodbye St. Tropez!”

It is classic Lindsey: grit, gratitude and girlish glee, just like a random sampling of her Facebook posts: “Arrived in Portillo, Chile… Can’t wait to put my skis on!” “Had a great day of super-G training this morning!…It feels good to go fast!” “Disappointed to not finish the super-combined race today but tomorrow is another day and another opportunity! Going to rest up and get after it!!” A December post from Lake Louise summed up a weekend of highs and lows, wins, losses and mistakes — in other words, a perfectly ordinary day in the life of our sweet, normal, Midwestern hometown hero who surely will be back breaking records soon: “Could not be happier right now! It was a hard road but everything worked out in the end… 🙂 Never give up! Xoxo Lv.” 

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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