Vonn still smooth on the slopes, but private life has gotten bumpy

  • Article by: BILL PENNINGTON , N ew York Times
  • Updated: April 9, 2012 - 11:32 PM

The Burnsville native had her best year of skiing, but an ugly divorce has meant a loss of husband and coach.

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Lindsey Vonn meets with students from her new Ski Girls Rock training program in Vail,.

Photo: Kevin Moloney, Associated Press - Nyt

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VAIL, COLO. - Skiing in the mountains above the Vail resort last week, Lindsey Vonn slowed to a stop at the top of a trail named in her honor after she won the 2010 women's Olympic downhill.

The trail, called Lindsey's, is a challenge: changeable and bumpy.

Vonn gazed at the trail but skied past it, and within minutes had ditched her ski gear and propped her stocking feet on a stool in a slopeside condominium.

"The 2010 Olympics seem far away now," she said. "So much has happened. So much has changed. So many sleepless nights and dark days. The ups and downs -- it has been really difficult. And I wouldn't have predicted that."

Last month, Vonn completed a record-setting race season, the greatest by a woman in the history of the World Cup. But her best year came amid personal turmoil as Vonn dealt with a thorny divorce.

In November, after four years of marriage, Vonn split with her husband, Thomas, who had also acted as her coach, manager and equipment guru. Asked to characterize the divorce negotiations, Vonn last week sighed deeply and said, "I would say they're a mess."

The couple did not sign a prenuptial agreement, she said, and have not spoken in two months since they tried to settle many details of their breakup themselves. "That didn't work out," she said.

The Vonns are worth millions of dollars, with Lindsey buoyed not only by her competition prize money but by multiple lucrative long-term contracts with sponsors like Rolex, Red Bull, Vail Resorts, Under Armour, and most recently, Kohl's department stores.

"There are a lot of moving parts; it's going to take awhile," she said of the divorce, adding with a rueful smile, "Calling it a mess might not be strong enough."

Thomas Vonn, who is living in one of the couple's dwellings, a condo in Park City, Utah, did not dispute her portrayal.

"The whole process has been difficult," he said in a telephone interview. "The whole situation saddens you."

The Vonns' divorce unexpectedly altered what had been a winsome story line of a skiing star with rare, crossover mainstream popularity. The strengths of their partnership had been celebrated after her victories, and Thomas Vonn was a continual presence at her side.

The divorce proceedings clashed with the projected, orderly public image, and they also spawned an Internet buzz that had Vonn dating any number of A-list celebrities, most notablyquarterback Tim Tebow, then playing for the Denver Broncos.

With all this on her plate last fall -- and after failing in 2010 to win the World Cup overall title for the first time since 2007 -- Vonn traveled to Europe.

At the hub of the isolation and the adulation, Vonn found unprecedented success, becoming the first American to win four World Cup overall titles. And, she reclaimed some of the essential purpose of her highly individual sport.

"I realized for the first time in my life I was skiing for myself," she said. "I had always had a lot of people helping me -- my dad when I was younger, then Thomas, and my sponsors. And sometimes, I think I skied for those other people.

"This year, I realized that I'm the only one in the start gate and I'm the only one deciding what line to ski and how fast. That was really empowering. It was kind of like being a kid again, skiing for yourself and having fun with it."

The result was a breakout season, if there is such a thing for an Olympic champion. Vonn was on the top of the podium in events like the giant slalom that she had never won before.

Vonn said last week that she had been contemplating a divorce for "months, years, quite a few months."

She added: "There came a point where there was no other option. Thomas was my manager and my coach, and for a long time my husband. But for a while, it's been mostly just business."

The dissolved marriage brought about another change in Lindsey's family dynamic. It put her back in contact with her father, Alan Kildow, whom she had not spoken to since 2005, in part because of her relationship with Thomas, who is nine years older than Lindsey.

"I had been confiding in my sister Karin, and she was helping me decide what to do with my life," Lindsey said. "She always had been saying that my father missed me, and she said my father had offered to help.

"He's a lawyer; he'd been through a divorce with my mom. I knew the direction I was going to follow. But I needed help. So I called him. It was a difficult first conversation, but we kind of worked past everything."

Vonn identified one major positive outcome of being single again -- she reconnected with her teammates.

"In the past, my dad was there with me and I was separated from the team," Vonn said. "Then Thomas was there, and I was off with him. This year, I was an integrated part of the team. We went to dinner together, we'd hang out or go shopping. I had never done those things with the girls before, and it made my skiing more fun."

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