PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Spend half your life in the public eye, date the most famous athlete on the planet for a few years, and you learn a few tricks about the importance of image control. And so Lindsey Vonn, Under Armour athlete, arrived for her first news conference of the PyeongChang Games with her hair coiffed just so, obscuring the Nike swoosh on her Team USA pullover. And then Vonn, Red Bull athlete, disappeared the Coke bottle next to her microphone on the dais. And everyone loves dogs, so Vonn made sure to bring along Lucy, her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel whose bug-eyed look grew into the first meme of these Winter Olympics.
For every bit of warranted cynicism the Olympic movement breeds, of course, there are moments too real to manufacture. Lindsey Vonn cried on Friday, the sorts of tears that go from 0 to 60 faster than a racecar. All it took was someone asking about Don Kildow, her grandfather and the reason a girl from Minnesota grew into the greatest ski racer America has ever known.
Vonn had hoped he would come to Korea, where he built roads during the war, and cheer her on at what almost certainly will be the 33-year-old’s final Olympics. Kildow died at 88 on Nov. 1.
“I want so badly to do well for him,” Vonn said. “I miss him so much. He’s been such a big part of my life. And I really had hoped he would be alive to see me. But I know he’s watching. And I know that he’s gonna help me. And I’m gonna win for him.”
All the control and calculation that come with high-profile athletes who depend upon sponsors for their livelihood – and particularly those in a long-term relationship with Tiger Woods – melted away when Vonn talked about Kildow. Her formative years skiing came on the 150-foot hill he built on an old cow pasture in Milton, Wisconsin. He and his wife, Shirley, have a shrine to their granddaughter in their basement. LINDSEY’S SKI DIARY, it says on a shelving unit with 39 binders that chronicle her career from speed-demon girl to the most accomplished female skier in history.
No woman can match Vonn’s 81 World Cup victories. With six more, she’ll pass Ingemar Stenmark as the most prolific skier in history. Another Olympic medal to add to her gold and bronze from 2010 would be the coup de grace as her career winds down.
That she’s even here is impressive enough. She was a downhill wunderkind at the 2002 Games, the victim of a gruesome crash in 2006, a revelation four years later and a sad story in 2014, when she missed the Sochi Games after tearing her right ACL twice in 2013. Injuries have dogged her since, her knee like an old engine that needs some priming before it will turn.
When it does, Vonn remains formidable. She comes here off a pair of World Cup wins that validated a 2017 geared toward peaking around the Olympics. “It’s what I think about first thing when I wake up,” she said, “and what I think about when I go to sleep.”
How her knee holds up amid a grueling schedule is the biggest question. While Vonn won’t race until she runs the Super-G on Feb. 17, it will be the first of seven days of competition, with three days of downhill training followed by the downhill race on Feb. 21, then a day of training for the combined race that pairs downhill and slalom on the 23rd.
Until then, she’s being exceedingly careful, the sort of balance necessarily for those who have spent their lives being airlifted off mountains. Vonn wore gloves to her news conference, lest the nasty norovirus kicking around PyeongChang dare attach itself to her hands. She’ll spend the time she isn’t on the mountain hanging with Lucy, her around-the-world companion. And she’ll do so, she said, with a clear mind and purpose.
“I feel really good,” Vonn said. “Because it’s not really about me or my career. It’s about my grandfather. I’m just going to lay it all out there. I’m going to give it everything I have. I’m not going to be nervous. I know he’s looking out for me, and I think that actually gives me a lot of peace of mind.”
She wiped away excess tears and composed herself. The Nike logo remained concealed, the Coke bottle out of sight, the dog available for pictures, but none of it could hide the girl who wants to make her grandpa proud and remind Americans how great she is.