On a drizzly Saturday morning in November, dozens of kids charge up a brown ski run at Buck Hill. The local racing season is still more than a month away, but these young racers have been doing dry-land workouts several times a week since early October. Once there’s enough snow, they’ll start running gates on skis — over and over and over again.
With its rope tow–served practice hill, this modest mound rising barely 300 feet above I-35 in suburban Burnsville might not seem like a world-class training site. Yet it has spawned a surprising number of international-caliber skiers. It was here, running 400 gates a night with her fellow Buck Hill Ski Racing Club members, that Lindsey Vonn (born Lindsey Kildrow in St. Paul on Oct. 18, 1984) laid the groundwork for the amazing string of successes that would take her to the pinnacle of her sport.
Was it her drive or her DNA that led to an Olympic Gold, more overall World Cup titles than any other Americanskier (man or woman), and widespread belief that she just might be the greatest ski racer ever — no qualification of gender or citizenship required?
Neither, jokes the man who first taught her a proper tuck.
“Without me, there would be no Lindsey Vonn,” says Erich Sailer in his modest office at Buck Hill, where he has presided over the ski racing program since 1969. Actually, he appears to be only half joking. His claim isn’t based solely on the fact that he coached Lindsey for the first several years of her racing career; he also coached her father, Alan Kildow, to three junior national championships.
“He was my first protégé,” says Sailer, who has built a reputation as one of the most successful development coaches in North America since arriving from his native Austria in 1954.
As a teenager, Kildow would travel north on weekends from his home in southern Wisconsin to train with Sailer at Mount Telemark, near Hayward. Kildow even transferred to Hayward High School for a winter so he could put in more time honing his racing skills. He won three junior national championships and had an eye on competing at the 1972 Winter Olympics when he blew out a knee while training with the Austrian national team. At 18, his ski racing career had come to an abrupt end.
Sailer says Kildow may have had even more of a will to win than his famously competitive daughter. He recalls a slalom race at a junior national championship in California that had a hairpin turn going into the last gate. “I told him, ‘You have to slow down when you get in there,’” says Sailer. “And he didn’t. He went in full speed and came out the wrong way. He hit the finish gate, and it threw him over some bales of hay. So he was behind the finish. And he crawled on all fours to the finish from behind. That’s how much he wanted it.” He adds, “Of course, he was already disqualified.”
Kildow went on to coach with Sailer for 14 years, while also attending college and law school. After he and his then wife (Linda Krohn, whom he met in law school) had their first daughter, Lindsey, it was only a matter of time — about 7 years, as it turned out — before he had her running gates under Sailer’s supervision.
It was not a particularly auspicious debut. “She was super slow,” says Sailer. “She moved so slow that I always said she looked like a turtle.” But Sailer didn’t push her, and before long she started to get the hang of it. “She picked it up very easily,” he says. “Everything came natural to her.”
Although Vonn is now best known for her prowess in speed events like downhill, both Sailer and Kildow (now managing partner of the Minneapolis office of DLA Piper, the world’s largest law firm) stress how accomplished she became as a slalom skier at an early age. “By the time she was 10, you could really see that there were some possibilities,” he recalls. “And at 11, she was very, very good.”
Around that time, she went to Colorado to compete in a Junior Olympic downhill race at Vail against kids two or three years her elder. “You could see that she was a natural at it,” says Kildow. “She had a real affinity for it.” He compares her aptitude in speed events to what it takes to be successful at auto racing: “Some people just have the ability to hold their foot to the floor going into a turn at 150 miles an hour. And some people don’t have that courage. It’s the kind of thing that either you have it or you don’t.”
Still, natural ability will only take you so far. “It was my feeling that if you’re going to be a speed skier, you need to be introduced to the mountains at a young age,” says Kildow. So, when Lindsey was 12, Kildow moved the whole family — including, by this time, four more kids — to Vail, where former U.S. Ski Team and Olympic coach Chip Woods had developed a top-notch speed racing program.
“For young kids, it’s a tremendous training facility,” says Kildow. “They learn how to go fast, how to handle jumps, high-speed turns, things like that. And to do it often and regularly. Not to mention just the ability to free-ski on the mountain.” This gave Lindsey the opportunity to slowly move into the speed events. Kildow compares this ramping-up process to learning how to ski jump: You don’t start by going off the highest jumps. “You have to build up,” he says. “There’s a progression that’s necessary.”
Although relocating the entire family to advance his daughter’s career may seem like a monumental move, for Kildow it was a return to familiar territory. He himself had gone out to Vail at age 16 to train with Austrian native Pepi Gramshammer, who had co-founded a summer ski camp near Red Lodge, Mont., with Sailer in the mid-1960s. “I knew everybody at Vail, I knew all the coaches, so it was just an easy, natural transition,” Kildow says.
What was not so easy was to watch some of the spectacular falls Lindsey took when she began to race in World Cup downhill events at 17. Kildow remembers one particularly hard tumble at Lake Louise. “It was at that time that I concluded that if she didn’t get into better condition, she was going to get seriously hurt,” he recalls. The next summer, he sent her to Monaco to work with renowned trainer Jacques Choynowski, who put her through grueling workouts for six and a half hours a day. “That’s when she really started to get into shape, and that’s when she began to score podiums in the World Cups,” says Kildow.
Along with Vonn’s natural ability, fearlessness and competitive drive, Kildow points to her willingness to put in the hours to stay in peak shape as a key factor in her racing success. He also credits Sailer with instilling in her a rock-solid foundation of racing fundamentals: “She learned the technical aspects of skiing when she was very young, and a great deal of that was with Erich at Buck Hill. Erich is able to produce a large number of high-level ski racers because with him it’s basics, basics, basics.”
Although Sailer takes some credit for putting Vonn on the path to greatness, he freely acknowledges Kildow’s role as the prime mover. “He arranged everything, he paid for everything,” Sailer says. “He put everything into it — his time, his money, his health — everything,” Sailer says. “Without him, it would not have happened.”
Kildow’s careful orchestration of his daughter’s racing career struck a discordant note when she started dating Thomas Vonn, a U.S. Ski Team racer nine years her senior. They met while competing at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah. Lindsey was 17; Thomas was 26. They moved in together a couple years later.
The relationship didn’t sit well with Kildow. Although he didn’t find out about it until Lindsey was nearly 19, the age difference disturbed him. “If you have a 17-year-old daughter and a 26-year-old guy shows up to take her on a date, your antenna would be up,” he says. “You’d go for the shotgun.”
Thomas took over the management of Lindsey’s career, which no doubt added insult to injury as far as Kildow was concerned. His disapproval of the relationship eventually led Lindsey to stop speaking to her father altogether. When the couple was married just a few weeks before Lindsey’s 23rd birthday, Kildow wasn’t invited to the wedding.
But in 2011, about the time the Vonns announced they were getting a divorce, Lindsey reached out to her father (who had gone through a divorce of his own, from Lindsey’s mother, several years earlier) for the first time in six years.
Asked how his relationship with his daughter is now, Kildow replies, “It’s terrific. Just like always.”
1984 Born October 18 in St. Paul, to Linda Krohn and Alan Kildow.
1999 At 14, becomes the first American girl to win the slalom at Italy’s Trofeo Topolino, the so-called “junior junior worlds.”
2002 At 17, races in the slalom and combined events at the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Her sixth place finish in combined is the best U.S. women’s result.
2004 Wins her first World Cup race, in downhill, at Canada’s Lake Louise. With the exception of one second-place finish, she has topped the podium at the same race every year since.
2006 Crashes during downhill training run at Torino Winter Olympics and is evacuated by helicopter to a hospital. After finishing eighth in the event two days later, is awarded the U.S. Olympic Spirit Award for her courageous performance.
2007 Marries Thomas Vonn, a former U.S. Ski Team member, on September 29.
2008 Wins her first overall and downhill World Cup titles.
2010 At the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, becomes the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in downhill. Also wins a bronze medal in super-G.
2011 Files for divorce.
2012 Has most successful World Cup season to date, winning 12 individual races and fourth overall title. Sets new women’s record for season point total.