From the lowly ‘mountain’ of Burnsville’s Buck Hill, skier Lindsey Vonn now stands on the top of the Alps

Lindsey Vonn
Photo by Doug Haney
Twin Citian Lindsey Vonn, 23, is among the leaders vying for skiing’s World Cup.

Buck Hill is a speed bump, a turtle shell, a pimple, really, on the terrain of the southern Twin Cities suburbs. It sits aside Interstate 35 like a forgettable berm, not a breathtaking slice of the Alps.

That faux “mountain” in Burnsville launched a little girl named Lindsey Kildow toward those grown-up downhill and slalom courses in places like Austria and Italy.

It is those Alps, those real ski hills, that this child of Buck Hill has come to dominate.

At 23, she’s on a World Cup pace this season

This ski season, all of 23 years old, she carries a newly acquired married surname — Vonn — and a renewed hunger after two seasons of untimely wipeouts and injury. She is also producing a World Cup season like no American woman has for the past 25 years.

But she still thinks of Buck Hill, even as she zooms into another stratosphere of fame and corporate promotion.

“I actually do think about it a lot,” Vonn told MinnPost this week via phone from her Park City, Utah, home. “I always find it incredible that I’m succeeding in downhill after only racing slalom at Buck, under the lights, 7 to 9 every night. Sometimes I’ll be checking my emails, and I’ll get some from Minnesota and I’ll think about Buck and where I started and how lucky I am to have made it.”

Vonn, who moved from Minnesota as a teenager to hone her alpine skills but whose family still lives in the Twin Cities, is at the top of the female ski world.

She is tied for first place in the overall standings of the grueling, glamorous World Cup. Even though she grew up mastering the technical slalom event under coach Erich Sailor at Buck Hill, Vonn has become a downhill whiz, whooshing down dangerous mountains at 65 mph with a special kind of fearlessness. She leads the world this season in downhill and the combined, which requires downhill and slalom runs on the same day.

No U.S. woman has won the title since 1983
With a month to go in the season, Vonn is attempting to become the first American woman to win the World Cup overall title since 1983.

Most recently, her victories and points in the standings came near the very same courses that dogged her, bit her — hurt her, really — at the 2006 Torino Winter Games. She won the downhill in Sestriere, Italy, last weekend (you can watch it here), almost two years to the day after she crashed at a pre-Olympic training run. She competed at Torino but did not do well. Then, her 2007 season was cut short by a knee injury.

Lindsey Vonn
Photo by Jonathan Selkowitz
Vonn’s video has proved popular with alpine ski fans in Europe.

It’s her doggedness and reckless abandon that is addressed in a remarkable video recently posted on Vonn’s website.

Athletes are using the web a lot. Some of their sites are rudimentary. Some are self-absorbed blogs. Some are vehicles to avoid the questions of the news media.

Vonn video is engaging — and very popular in Europe
Vonn’s is legitimately engaging and highly professional. It was funded by Red Bull, the Austrian-based, internationally marketed “energy drink.” Red Bull is one of her growing array of corporate sponsors. The lengthy “up close and personal video” of Vonn on her site is downright revealing for a promotional vehicle.

It’s been so popular in Europe — where alpine skiing is embraced — that some European TV networks have lifted minutes from the video and shown them. (Welcome to the world of canned news.)

The most compelling segment of the video addresses her love of speed — she had her driver’s license suspended as a teenager – and the real risks attached to pushing the limits.

Thomas Vonn, a former U.S. ski racer and the man she married last September, says in the video that he’s working to teach her to “maybe be a little afraid … She’s going at it fearless … If you’re always rolling the dice, eventually that will catch up with you … How many times can you get up and walk away from a crash that’s so big?”

She counters: “Skiing is a dangerous sport. I’m not in it to go slow. I’m in it to go fast. If you go fast, sometimes you might get hurt.”

Four months of marriage and already they’re spatting!

Lindsey Vonn said she wanted to tell her story on her site because with her goggles on, her helmet on, her body wrapped in tights and logos, “I wanted people to get to know a lot more about me.”

Name change was tricky marketing issue

One marketing issue: her name change. She said she thought hard about transitioning from Kildow to Vonn.

“At this point in my career, I’m famous in Europe, but not really in the U.S.,” she said. “I’m at the point in my career where people can adjust. If I wasn’t ski racing, I would definitely change my name. That wouldn’t be a question. Life and happiness come before ski racing.”

But romance only goes so far. They still haven’t taken their honeymoon. After the September wedding, she went back into training instantly.

It’s paid off with this breakthrough season. And now her stage moves to Whistler, British Columbia. On Feb. 22 and 24, she’ll try to take undisputed lead of the World Cup standings on the site of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics alpine events.

That’s what she’s looking toward.

“It’s two years away, but it’s in the back of my mind,” she said of another crack at an Olympic victory. “Two years go fairly quickly.”

And Whistler is in North America. The attention will intensify. The races will be beamed live and in HD from a mountain just two time zones away. If Lindsey Vonn looks hard enough, maybe, just maybe, she’ll be able to see Buck Hill from there.

Jay Weiner, who has covered every Winter and Summer Olympics since 1984, will report for MinnPost from the 2008 Beijing Games.

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