It may be a distant memory in the wake of four World Cup overall titles in five years, 53 career World Cup race wins and Olympic gold in the downhill, but once upon a time Lindsey Vonn was a shy nine-year-old in search of a mentor.
She found that mentor in Olympic Gold Medalist Picabo Street. “Picabo was amazing to me when I was nine and met her at an autograph session,” Vonn told the crowd at a homecoming celebration in Vail on April 1, where Street herself was on hand to welcome back Vonn.
Earlier, Vonn had admitted in an interview, “I wish I had more of that when I was growing up. Picabo was one of the major reasons I became an Olympian. I know how much of an impact that can make. I also met some people who were not that friendly, and it traumatized me.”
Positive role modeling was a lesson Vonn took to heart, and her time to more actively pay it forward has come. This winter, the Vail ski school debuted the Vonn-inspired program Ski Girls Rock, a daily lesson option for girls ages 5 to 15 during holiday and peak periods.
“I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” Vonn said. “You can have such a positive impact on kids. It’s important for girls to have self-confidence at this pivotal point in their lives and to find out who they are.”
A young girl hangs out with Lindsey Vonn at the NASTAR start gate this past weekend in Vail. Photo by Tom Green.
The format is simple: four girls, one female instructor, and the chance for some inspired skiing. Plus, a lucky few get the chance to ski with Vonn at the end of the season. The program was so popular in its first year that an extra week of lessons was added, said Vail Spokeswoman Liz Biebl.
Before the season, Vonn met with the instructors selected for the program, sharing her hopes and vision for the lessons. “Lindsey cares about the next generation of ski girls,” Instructor Nicole Trench said. “And she was a kid at one time who looked up to her instructors.”
As with women’s-only clinics for adults, the girls’-only format can free up young skiers to concentrate on their athleticism, without being distracted by what the boys might think. “A lot of times, girls can’t let go when they’re skiing with the boys,” Trench said. “But in these lessons, you’ve got girls out there rocking it and ripping it up. It’s nice seeing the girls come out of their shell.”
On the morning of Vonn’s Vail homecoming, four excited young girls who were nominated by their Ski Girls Rock instructors, along with a handful of others, gathered at the NASTAR course to ski with their idol. On this unseasonably warm spring day, Vonn had traded in her speed suit for black stretch pants and a neon pink vest from Jet Set. She stepped into the start gate at the top of the Black Forest race arena and took turns racing the girls, good-naturedly letting each one beat her.
And these girls did indeed rock it, ponytails flying, flashing braces-enhanced smiles at the bottom of the course as female artists like Adele played over the PA system.
“Seeing Lindsey for the first time was the most exciting,” said one of the girls, Sloane Goldman, 11, of Austin, Texas. “I’ve always loved skiing, and I want to get as good as her.” She’s already looking forward to signing up for Ski Girls Rock next year. “My skiing got better, and you learn new things every day. Plus, I didn’t have to be with my brother.”
Though Vonn is known for her strong work ethic and rigorous training, she intentionally gave Ski Girls Rock a relaxed approach. “The program is about having fun, enjoying the experience and being outdoors,” she noted. “It’s better not to have too much structure.”
Picabo Street and Lindsey Vonn share the stage with young girls from the Ski Girls Rock program last weekend in Vail. Photo by Tom Green.
The format resonated with the girls. When seven-year-old Michaela Landry, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., participated in the program earlier this winter, “She really related to the female instructors,” said Barbara, her mother. Her dad, Michael, added “It’s the fastest improvement she’s ever had,” noting that Michaela went up two ability levels after five days of lessons.
And after this morning of racing with Vonn and the other girls, Barbara said, “She lost probably four or five seconds today, just being in that environment. Her whole form changed.”
The program’s mission of confidence building appealed to parents, too. “It’s good for them to cultivate their self-esteem while skiing and also have a nice bonding experience,” said Jessica Goldman of Scarsdale, N.Y., whose nine-year-old twins, Isabella and Devin, were among the girls on Sunday. The twins had previously spent a week in Ski Girls Rock this February.
According to Street, the Ski Girls Rock program was a natural next step for her protégé. “I knew when I first met Lindsey that this was her destiny—her success, being a role model, and paying it forward for the next generation,” Street said before the homecoming celebration.
Might the next Lindsey Vonn be among these rocking ski girls? “Lindsey’s story was that she wasn’t necessarily training to be a racer before moving out to Vail,” Ski Girls Rock Instructor Jules Sharpley said. “She was just your average ski-school girl who decided that she loved racing. That could happen to any of these girls.”
And the other half need not feel left out, necessarily. “Eventually maybe I’ll do a boys’ program,” said Vonn. “But this is a great start.”