Ask Lindsey Kildow about her childhood and skiing at Buck Hill, and she says, "They're kind of one and the same."
The daughter of a ski racer, Kildow was schussing soon after she took her first steps. At age 2, she tested the humble slope in Burnsville as her father, Alan, nudged her into a lifelong romance with the sport. Now Kildow, 21, is taking to the world stage as one of America's youngest and best skiers.
At the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, which begin this week, she is considered a medal contender in multiple events -- and may be on the verge of making the Little Slope on the Prairie famous.
"World-class skiers can't believe we started on this little bump in Burnsville," said Kristina Koznick, another Buck Hill alum, who also will compete in Turin.
But Kildow's story is not as simple as local kid makes good. It's a layered tale that slaloms across continents, through an unsettled youth and past a spurned father, revealing the price of getting to the bottom of the hill on top.
When Kildow displayed promise on Buck Hill, her father, a former Junior Olympic champ, moved the family to the skiing mecca of Vail, Colo.
Her life changed as dramatically as the altitude.
She was home-schooled. She didn't get to attend a prom or homecoming game. She traveled to Europe to compete.
Even now, she rarely sees her four younger siblings, who moved back to the Twin Cities a few years ago and live in Apple Valley with their mother.
She knows well what she lost, and earned, as her career advanced.
Hard but necessary
Kildow called the move to Vail and its daunting downhill ski runs "the best thing that I could have done."
"They had a great coaching staff there, and the Junior Olympics were there," she said. "It was really hard on my family, but it was necessary for success."
Her parents are now divorced. And Kildow said recently she no longer speaks with her father.
She says she doesn't want to see him at her events, including the Olympics, in part because he has criticized her relationship with former U.S. skier Thomas Vonn, her boyfriend.
Alan Kildow has downplayed the rift in other interviews, but he did not return calls from the Star Tribune. Those who know Kildow and her father say that he hasn't changed and that she is asserting an independent streak borne of a youth spent competing, often without friends or family members, on far-flung mountains.
"It was mostly my dad who was like, `You have to move, otherwise you're not going to be good,'" Kildow said. "I understood that. At the time, it wasn't necessarily what I wanted to do. It's hard moving. It's hard making new friends, and we were moving houses every year, but my dad knew that's what it took, so that's what we did.
"He definitely pushed me in the direction of success, and I liked it. It was more in the later years, when he wanted to keep doing that, let's just say it didn't work out."
And now? She shrugged and said, "I'm not speaking to him on any level."
A tasty beginning
Even as she readies to go for the gold in Turin, Kildow says she remembers when her skiing rewards were perishable.
"What I remember most about Buck Hill," she said, "is hot chocolate and sprinkled doughnuts. And Erich."
That's Erich Sailer, the patriarch of Minnesota skiing -- if not U.S. women's skiing. You can still find him most weeknights at Buck Hill, beside Interstate Hwy. 35W, teaching toddlers and teenagers.
You can still find the hot chocolate and doughnuts there, too, tempting kids who will be watching Kildow and other Buck Hill alums try to tame the Alps.
"I've had friends come to town and drive by on 35 and call me in shock, saying, `You're not kidding -- it is really small," Koznick, a resident of Eagan, said of Buck Hill. "But thanks to Erich, it produces great skiers, and Lindsey is a great example."
Sailer has worked with five of the 10 members of the U.S. women's Olympic ski team, and another, Kaylin Richardson, is from Edina. Sailer takes pride in placing "flatlanders" atop the sport's most famous peaks and podiums.
"That is a challenge," said Sailer, an Austrian who lives in Apple Valley most of the year. "And I think we have done very well at that."
Sailer got Alan Kildow his first job and introduced him to ski racing. When Kildow brought little Lindsey to Buck Hill for lessons, Sailer cringed.
"I thought, `Poor father,'" Sailer said. "She moved like a turtle.
"She changed, slowly, and when she was 9, she went to Europe with me, and then she was so independent and cool about everything. At 12, I told Alan, now she looks better than Kristina did."
Kildow recorded the best Alpine finish of any U.S. woman at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake, taking sixth in the combined. This winter she ranks fifth in the World Cup downhill standings, third in the Super-G and sixth overall. She took two fourth-place finishes at the 2005 World Championships, crying after so narrowly missing the podium.
Regarding the rift between the father and daughter, Sailer defended Alan Kildow, saying he has spent much of his life, and a small fortune, supporting his daughter.
"She has a different relationship with her father," Sailer said. "Sometimes athletes are young and immature, and that's the way it goes."
A mother's sacrifice
Lindsey Kildow speaks often with her mother, Linda Krohn, who lives near Apple Valley High School and plans to attend the Olympics.
Krohn is an unusual ski parent. She was an "ice bunny" -- a skating cheerleader -- at Mounds View High School and an avid water-skier.
She doesn't like the cold -- "Why couldn't Lindsey have taken up tennis?" she jokes -- and she hasn't been able to ski since suffering a stroke when delivering Lindsey.
Now, Krohn tracks Kildow's feats on the Internet, making sure her daughter has finished safely before viewing racing broadcasts.
"She is a remarkable kid -- and now, gosh, she's an adult," Krohn said. "Lots of people say, `How can you give up your child, have her traveling in Europe and not seeing her?' and I say if your child really loves it, you have to say, `I give her to the U.S.'
"I love her, and she'll always be mine, but I see it as a noble thing. That's the way I have to look at it, because it just kills you. I mean, at 15, she was gone."
Training and traveling
Kildow's favorite movie is "Gladiator," and not because of Joaquin Phoenix's sneer.
"I find the movie has some similarities to skiing," she said. "It's an intense movie, and I'm an intense person. You don't get to use weapons on the slopes, but there are times I wish I could at least have some boxing gloves."
While fellow U.S. ski standout Julia Mancuso is mellow and slender, and talks of using her winnings to shop for "really cool clothes," Kildow is an intense powerhouse at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds.
Mancuso speaks of "free-skiing" the same way surfers speak of catching waves. "I like it when it's just you and the mountain," she said.
Kildow likes it when she's beating someone down the mountain. She hardly skis at all during the offseason, instead dedicating herself to turning her body into a speed machine.
She was the subject of a recent cover story in Ski Racing magazine, titled, "Fit For Gold." It detailed her seven-day-a-week workout program and displayed photos of her biking, lifting, doing agility drills and tossing medicine balls.
"I worry about her every time she skis," Krohn said. "I know the likelihood of injury. But I think she made her body a rock."
Kildow worked this summer with Matt James of Velocity Sports Performance in Hillsboro, Ore. "I'm kind of obsessive," she said. "I guess I always have been. I've always been the one who's out first and comes in last, and I'm the one who wants to help set up the course and take down the course.
"It's paid off to have that mentality, especially now, because it's so hard to ski four events, and I think my drive helps me a lot with that."
She has a sense of humor, too. When Kildow won the downhill at Val d'Isere, France, in December, she was given a choice of standard prize money, or less money and a cow.
She took the cow and named it "Olympe."
Kildow says starting at Buck Hill "was great for me." Since there was no chance of working on downhill skiing skills, she mastered other techniques that improved her versatility on the slopes.
Getting introduced to the downhill at Vail at an early age, Kildow said, also was a rush.
"I loved it," Kildow said. "There is no feeling in the world like hurtling down the mountain."
When she grabbed the Buck Hill tow rope for the first time, Kildow wore a pink ski cap and thought about hot chocolate. This month, she'll hurtle down the Alps, wearing the U.S. blue and thinking of cold gold.
"It was a childhood dream of mine to win a gold medal," Kildow said. "In that way, really, nothing has changed."