Minnesota nice: Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn meets with fans at Afton Alps
Growing up, Minnesota native Lindsey Vonn first met her idol Pikabo Street at a local ski swap.
Vonn, the most decorated ski racer in American history, returned to her home state of Minnesota as part of Afton Alps’ annual Fall Fair and Swap and to help promote the newest Vail resort’s Epic Pass.
“It’s really cool for me to be able to kind of be in the same position,” Vonn, 28, said. “When I met Pikabo, she really inspired me to want to be an Olympian. Hopefully I can give Minnesotans inspiration and hopefully be an Olympian someday too.”
Vonn, a four-time World Champion and the gold medalist in the 2010 Winter Olympics, was born in St. Paul and was raised in Burnsville, where she called Buck Hill her home course. Growing up, Vonn was coached by Tony Olin, the current head coach and program director of Team Afton. For many years, Vonn would travel to Colorado to train, before her family finally moved to Vail in the late 1990s.
“I grew up just miles down the road and raced here at Afton many, many times,” Vonn said. “It’s really nice to see all the faces here tonight. I’m excited that Afton is part of Vail resorts. It may not be a mountain here, but it’s a perfect place to start.”
Vonn is one of six women to have won World Cup races in all five disciplines of alpine skiing — downhill, super G, giant slalom, slalom, and super combined — and has won 59 World Cup races in her career. Only two ski racers have more World Cup victories in their careers. With her Olympic gold and bronze medals, two World Championship gold medals in 2009 (plus three silver medals from 2007 and 2011), and four overall World Cup titles, Vonn has become the most successful American skier in history.
“It’s cool she’s giving back to where she started from,” said Holton Sailer, a sophomore downhill skier at Woodbury’s East Ridge High School. “It’s impressive that she’s come this far. It’s cool that she’s come from a little hill like Afton and is an Olympian. It’s pretty cool.”
In between rehabilitation and training sessions – Vonn tore both her ACL and MCL and fractured her tibia eight months ago while racing in Austria – Vonn took the time to visit Afton Alps as a representative for Vail Resorts and its Epic Pass. Afton Alps was acquired by Vail Resorts in December and the company has since invested nearly $10 million in enhancements and upgrades, including 72 new snowmaking guns, a renovated guest services facility, and an electronic lift ticketing and scanning system.
Vonn recalled skiing hills like Afton Alps growing up in Minnesota.
“I think starting on a hill like this is perfect,” Vonn said. “The more runs you can get in the better. I don’t think you need a mountain to start off. It’s about repetition. You just have to keep skiing.”
At Friday’s event, Vonn did interviews with local media —where she performed her Minnesota accent impression and admitted a love for Caribou Coffee — then met with over 50 members of the Afton Alps developmental ski team before hitting the stage, where she addressed the crowd and answered a few questions from local kids. One of the evening’s most touching moments came when Megan Erickson, a member of the U.S. Paralympic ski team, thanked Vonn for a $5,000 donation she made that aided in her training. To close the event, Vonn met with and signed autographs for every person in attendance.
“Everyone in Minnesota is so nice and so down-to-Earth,” Vonn said. “I’ve never lost touch with my roots and I’ve learned how to be Minnesota nice. This means a lot to me and it gives me a sense of pride. We’re from the same place. I was the same little girl once. You don’t have to be from the mountains. I hope they can grow up to achieve their dreams.”
Johanna Teegarden, 10, is a fifth-grader at Afton Lakeland Elementary in Afton and has been a member of the Afton D-Team for four years. She said Vonn is her favorite athlete.
“She’s been my inspiration,” Teegarden said. “Meeting her was really awesome. I can’t believe I actually got invited here. I was so happy. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She makes us want to push ourselves so much more like she did. She probably had a lot of goals she wanted to do and she’s met a lot of them.”
Garret Sailer, a seventh-grader at Lake Middle School in Woodbury has been skiing at Afton Alps since he was 3 years old. He was lucky enough to be selected to meet with Vonn and had his pass and a helmet autographed.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking,” he said. “I’ve kind of grown up here. It’s cool that an Olympic skier also grew up skiing here. I definitely hope I can be as good as her when I grow up.”
Claire Gustafson, 13, attends Cottage Grove Middle School. She also got the chance to visit one-on-one with Vonn.
“It was really cool to meet her,” Gustafson said. “I was very excited. I didn’t really know what it was until I got here. I think she’s pretty cool.”
On the race front, Vonn said has come a long way since her injury and she may be back earlier than many expected.
A return was originally slated for a World Cup race in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Nov. 29. However, Vonn said Friday she will travel to Austria, on Oct. 26 for the World Cup opener and hopes to be able to race.
“I went skiing in Chile just a few weeks ago and it went really, really well,” Vonn said. “Maybe I’ll start racing this month, on the 26th, we’ll see. But, I’m happy to be back. It feels good.”
Vonn has roughly three weeks to continue her rehabilitation before heading to Austria. Then it’s four months until the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. There, Vonn hopes to defend her gold medal in the downhill and improve on her bronze finish in the super-G.
“I’m working really hard,” Vonn said. “I’m in the gym all the time. I’m just as strong as I was before. It’s just the matter of getting the volume in on snow. I have to go back to Europe in a couple weeks and try to just catch up. Everyone has been training all summer, so I have to make up some time. But, I’m ready.”