Olympian skier Lindsey Vonn on what drove her success, and the ‘heavy price’ of her career

The Beijing Winter Olympics are a week away. Judy Woodruff talks about the upcoming games with Lindsey Vonn, the Olympic gold medal-winning Alpine skier. She holds four overall World Cup titles, and is one of only six women to have won World Cup races in all five disciplines of Alpine skiing. She retired in 2019 and now has a new memoir, "Rise: My Story," which focuses on her trailblazing career.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One week from today, the Winter Olympics get under way in China.

    I talked about the upcoming games and her new book yesterday with Lindsey Vonn, the Olympic gold medal-winning alpine skier. She holds four overall World Cup titles, and is one of only six women to have won World Cup races in all five disciplines of alpine skiing.

    She retired in 2019, and is out with a new memoir, "Rise: My Story," which focuses on her trailblazing career.

    Lindsey Vonn, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Congratulations on the book.

    So much of your story begins with your family, how they have supported you throughout your career. You write so much about your father, how he encouraged you. He was a former serious skier himself.

    But I saw, in the beginning of the book, you dedicate this book to your mother and you say she was your inspiration. How so?

  • Lindsey Vonn, Olympic Gold Medalist:

    Well, my mother actually had a stroke while giving birth to me. And she's been so optimistic and positive my entire life.

    And I think that's where I have gotten that optimism from. Whenever I have faced adversity, especially physical injure in the course of my career, I have always looked to my mom for that level of optimism and positivity, and also just a different perspective.

    You know, my mom had a limp from — because of her stroke. And she was never able to bike or run or ski with me. And so I just think I can come back from my injuries, and my mother cannot, so it's a privilege for me to be able to work hard and come back. And just, I don't know, having that perspective changed the way I approached injuries and the way I approach adversity.

    And that's why I dedicated the book to my mother.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, what also definitely comes through in this book is your drive, your determination to reach your goal.

    I mean, every — I know you have been asked this question so many times, but where does that come from? At 7 years old, you were saying you wanted to be a skier. When you were just 9, you said you were going to the Olympics.

    Where do you think it comes from?

  • Lindsey Vonn:

    I have always been a very driven person, but I also think it comes from my environment, my family, my parents, my grandparents.

    My grandfather was a very tough, strong man who had an incredible work ethic, as was my grandmother, and spending a lot of time as a kid around them, and also, again, my mother being extremely tough, and my father really ingraining in me work ethic, and I think that that — all of those people really shaped me, but the drive to want to be the best and to be a competitor, I don't know, that's something I have always had.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lindsey Vonn, you also write at — in detail about the physical injuries you have experienced over your career and how you powered through them and came back.

    You pushed yourself to the extreme. And, as you think back on that, do you have any second thoughts about it? Because some of these injuries were — might have been life-threatening.

  • Lindsey Vonn:

    You know, I think, unfortunately or fortunately, that's just the risk that we take in ski racing, and I have always known that risk.

    So I always have thought it's been worth it. You know, I love ski racing. I love the adrenaline and thrill and going down a mountain at 85 miles an hour. There's really nothing quite like it.

    Have I paid a heavy price for doing what I love? Absolutely. You know, I'm in pain pretty much every day. My knees are always hurting me. My arm hurts. Everything is — but — everything hurts, but you know what? I was happy that I was able to get as many years out of it as I did. And to have the success I did, I feel very lucky.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, in — and in connection with that, you are also candid in the book about the emotional stresses that you have been under.

    You have talked for some years publicly about dealing with depression. But now we seem to be going through a period where more athletes are being more open to talk about their struggles.

    Do you think we're turning a corner in that way? Or do you think it's still — there's still just a lot of stigma associated with it?

  • Lindsey Vonn:

    I still think there's a lot of stigma.

    But I started talking about it in 2012, and the stigma was much greater then than it is now. I mean, it wasn't an easy thing for me to talk about at that time. And many people said that it was going to ruin my career. But, thankfully, it didn't.

    And, thankfully, we were continuing to have these conversations. And I think, with people like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps and Kevin Love, athletes speaking out about mental health only can be positive because it sheds light on a topic that, again, has a lot of stigma attached to it. And, hopefully, we can change that and empower each others to seek help and get the support that they need.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other thing you write about is how women are treated differently from men in athletics.

    What needs to happen, in your view, for there to be a more even playing field?

  • Lindsey Vonn:

    I can't tell you how many people have said that I got sponsors or I got certain privileges in my career because of my looks, instead of my wins.

    And I think that's completely absurd. You know, I have won 82 World Cups, and I have many Olympic and world championship medals. And that's why I was able to get the things that I did, not because of the way I look.

    And that would never be even a remote point of conversation if I was a man. So, I think just those generalizations and those — that type of conversation just needs to change, period.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of work still to be done.

    I want to ask you about the Olympics, this year, the Winter Games in China. As you know, a lot of conversation about whether they should even be being held there, given China's human rights record. The skier Mikaela Shiffrin said she had given thought to whether she should go.

    Do you think, if you were still competing, it would be giving you concern or pause?

  • Lindsey Vonn:

    I mean, it definitely is something that you need to think about as an athlete.

    I think that, once the decision is made to have the Olympics at that venue, I think, as an athlete, you can't say no. I mean, we have worked our entire lives for those moments. And I think there's very few people that would turn that opportunity down.

    But I think, going forward, really, the conversation needs to be on where we're — how are we selecting these venues, what's the reason, and really making sure we don't come into situations where there's a lot of controversy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Of course, there's a lot of conversations about how different these Olympics are. There's COVID to deal with, but there's also the growing conversation about climate change.

    They're having to make the snow for competition in Beijing. You have started to speak out yourself about climate change, the effect on skiing, skiing's effect on climate change.

    How do you look at that right now, and do you think it's something that there needs to be more discussion about?

  • Lindsey Vonn:

    I think a lot of athletes, especially skiers and the winter athletes, have been talking about climate change a long time. It just hasn't really been this dire until recently.

    But we have seen firsthand. I mean, I have raced — I skied on glaciers in Austria since I was 9, and they basically no longer exist. They have melted that much.

    So, I think we — just because we're in winter all the time, we see the changes and the inconsistencies. And it's raining, instead of snowing. And there's just — there's so much volatility in the climate right now, that it's very apparent to us.

    I'm glad that we're having these conversations. And I hope that we can make enough change, as a whole, to be able to offset this climate change.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, the book is — we are so delighted to talk to you about it. The book is "Rise: My Story,"

    Lindsey Vonn, we thank you, and we wish you the best.

  • Lindsey Vonn:

    Thank you so much. Take care.

Listen to this Segment