She never forgot how much that meeting meant to her, not even when she surpassed the achievements of her idol. Thirteen years ago, Lindsey Kildow stood in line at Bloomington's Pierce Skate & Ski, bouncing with excitement at the chance to say hello to Picabo Street.
Street represented everything 10-year-old Lindsey wanted to be: a World Cup downhill skiing champion, an Olympic gold medalist, an American sports star who remained true to her roots. Kildow left with an autographed photo and a dream. Last fall, Lindsey Kildow Vonn returned -- this time, on the other side of the equation.
Vonn came back to the ski shop as the most successful downhill skier in U.S. history and the first American woman in 25 years to win the World Cup overall championship. The overall and downhill titles she won last spring, and her continuation at or near the top of this season's World Cup standings, earned her the title of Star Tribune Sportsperson of the Year. As she sat at a table answering young skiers' questions and signing photos, Vonn couldn't help but shake her head at the blessed symmetry of it all.
"It is incredible," said the 24-year-old Vonn, who lived in the Twin Cities until she was 12 and still has most of her family in the area. "I could see myself in every little girl that came up. I couldn't believe I was in the same position Picabo was when I met her, when I was the little girl who was so excited.
"When I met Picabo, it made me realize I could be a ski racer. It is so cool and so humbling to know I can be a role model now. It's just amazing to me that I'm in this place."
Vonn and her husband, Thomas Vonn, now live in Park City, Utah. They spend much of the year in Europe, where most World Cup ski races are held.
The two-time Olympian started at Burnsville's Buck Hill, where she was a member of Erich Sailer's racing team until her family moved to Vail, Colo. Vonn remembers how hard she cried when she learned they were leaving Minnesota, and her Midwestern sensibility remains a large part of her identity.
This is a woman who, when given a choice between a cash prize and a cow for winning a race, took the cow. She now owns a small herd in Austria and might one day make cheese as a nod to her Wisconsin grandparents. She loves the Mall of America. She earns a handsome income from sponsorships and the ski circuit, but she prefers that her mother e-mail rather than call her in Europe to save money.
"People ask me all the time, 'Is she for real?'" said Thomas Vonn, a former member of the U.S. Ski Team who married Lindsey in 2007. "Absolutely, and she couldn't change if she wanted to. You would never guess she is who she is."
Even now, long after she left Minnesota, Vonn still feels deeply connected to her birthplace. She lists two home clubs on her biography: Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, where she found fame, and Buck Hill, where she found herself.
"I've moved a lot, but I never lost touch with who I am," Vonn said. "Minnesota is a huge part of me. I want everyone to know where I'm from. It's my past that made me who I am."
A youthful plodder
As she twisted her way down a slalom course in Levi, Finland, last month, Vonn could practically hear Sailer calling out to her. Inside ski! Outside ski! For years, her former coach had teased her about her winless streak in World Cup slalom races, an odd deficiency for a girl raised on winding through the gates at Buck Hill.
Sailer still loves to tell how he saw young Lindsey as a "turtle" -- not a prodigy but a plodder. Back then, Vonn viewed the 300-foot slope as a social playground, a place to sip hot chocolate, share gossip with her friends and belt out Alanis Morissette songs as they grabbed the tow rope to ski run after run.
By age 9, now faster and nimbler, she had begun winning regularly. "She broke a tooth once," said Sailer, Buck Hill's racing coach for 37 years. "I felt bad, but she didn't cry. She never even stopped.
"By the time she was 11 or 12, I thought she was as good as [former Buck Hill racers and U.S. Ski Team members] Kristina Koznick and Tasha Nelson. Maybe better. She was a very determined kid, but everyone liked her."
Meeting Street shifted Vonn's focus. She always had goals; her mom, Linda Krohn, recalled her saying at age 8 that she wanted to win more Olympic medals than anyone else. But she also loved gymnastics, singing with a group in Apple Valley and the 18-hour car trips to ski in Vail with her family.
As she racked up victories in bigger and bigger races, her destiny became clearer. Vonn's mother had framed a photo of Lindsey and Street, taken at the ski shop, and hung it in her bedroom. That kept Vonn's eye on her goal, even as she wept over the move from Minnesota.
"We had built our dream home in Apple Valley," she said. "All the kids' handprints are in the cement in the driveway. My parents didn't tell me for a few months that we had sold it, and I was devastated.
"When you're young, you don't realize how much has to be sacrificed for something like this. Now, I appreciate everything my family did for me."
And Sailer, too. An exacting technician, he drills his students through dozens of slalom runs a week. But he also allows his skiers to develop their own style.
His gentleness, constant encouragement and insistence on repetition made Vonn long for the school bell that signaled her daily escape to Buck Hill. The sound technique she learned carried her to the 2002 Olympics at age 18; her love for speed and her fearlessness led her from slalom to downhill, where she made history.
Last year, Vonn won the World Cup downhill title, becoming the first U.S. woman to do so since Street in 1996. She now has 11 World Cup downhill victories, making her the most successful U.S. downhiller -- male or female -- of all time. Her World Cup overall crown cemented her status as one of the world's most versatile skiers; she competes in downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super giant slalom and combined.
Vonn had never won a World Cup slalom race, though, until that day in Finland. She dedicated the victory to Buck Hill and to Sailer, who has photos of the race tacked on his office wall.
"I have this signature move in downhill where I lean in and bank the turns," Vonn said. "Some people say that's the wrong way to do it. But Erich always told me that technique and style were what made me fast. He taught me to stick with it, and I've never forgotten that."
True to her roots
Vonn has persevered through several harrowing crashes, including one that occurred just before the 2006 Olympics. Since then, she has become far more consistent. She credits much of her improvement to Thomas, who travels with her and helps with everything from equipment preparation to course analysis to emotional support.
Her mother and four siblings live in Apple Valley, and one brother, Reed Kildow, is a top high school skier. Vonn's mother and grandmother log on to the Internet at 4:30 a.m. to watch her races, as do many of Sailer's current students.
Last week, about 50 of them gathered for a training session at Buck Hill, where they grabbed the same tow rope and listened to the same instruction from Sailer. Vonn's success has made her a model for them, just as Street provided a model for her.
"It's really encouraging for us," said Michael Ankeny, 17, who races for Buck Hill and U.S. Skiing's development team. "When I was younger, when people heard I was from Buck Hill, they'd say, 'That's just a hill. You can't ski.' Now they ask, 'Do you know Lindsey?' She's brought us a lot more fame."
Vonn is a huge star in Europe, where children have mobbed her for autographs in Italy and her German language skill has made her a favorite in Austria. She is unfailingly gracious to fans, even as she feels a bit awkward with fame.
When she was nominated for an ESPY Award last summer, Vonn found herself in disbelief as she rubbed elbows with Brett Favre and Samuel L. Jackson. Back in Minnesota, though, at the ski shop where she first envisioned her future, she felt right at home.
"Sometimes, we say, 'Can you even believe Lindsey is the best ski racer in the world?'" said her mother, Krohn. "But the best part is she's still Minnesota nice to the core. None of this has gone to her head. I couldn't be prouder of her."