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Lindsey Vonn Is Still Moving Fast After Retirement, Swapping Skis for Stilettos & Championing Women in Sports

Dressed in those much-buzzed-about skin-tight Gucci x Balenciaga boot leggings and a Wolford bodysuit from her own Legacy Collection with Head Sportswear, former pro skier Lindsey Vonn is trying to stay warm on set in FN’s New York photo studio, bundling up in her own puffer jacket while the crew tries to crank up the heat.

Vonn is in the Big Apple to kick off a book tour and press appearances for her revealing new memoir, “Rise,” which recounts her more than 20-year career on the ski circuit, where she defied skeptics (some of which included her own coaches) to become the most decorated female skier of all time.

The theme for the shoot is an elevated interpretation of the après-ski aesthetic — fitting given that Vonn is in her own “après” moment after announcing her retirement in February 2019.

Since then, the 37-year-old has embarked on an ambitious series of entrepreneurial projects, including working with Head on her skiwear collection and collaborating with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Project Rock brand. In addition, her new production company released its first film on NBC’s Peacock streaming app this month — a documentary about her childhood hero Picabo Street — and she serves as an adviser and investor for three venture capital funds.

Also, in her time post-retirement, Vonn has been getting more closely acquainted with the fashion world, from appearing in Thom Browne’s virtual fall ’22 presentation to gracing the front row of Gucci’s Love Parade event in November.

It’s clear — this woman still likes to move fast.

Hard at Work

A hallmark of Vonn’s time on the slopes was her intense work ethic, which was matched only by her fearlessness in throwing herself off tall mountains.

“The reason why I was fearless is that I always felt prepared,” the Minnesota native told FN in between snaps with photographer Sage East. “I put in the work in the gym, with watching video and studying the courses. I knew as much as there was to know about the task at hand.”

And those skills are serving her well once again. “I take that same approach into business and into venture capital, doing my research, surrounding myself with really smart people that I can lean on and get advice from,” said Vonn.

CREDIT: Sage East

 

Some aspects of the athlete experience don’t translate as easily, though, including measuring success. “I’m used to seeing results from my hard work right away. In a race, you always know where you stack up. In the business world, it’s definitely not the case,” she said. “That’s been one of the harder things for me transitioning into this next chapter is the benchmarks. I try to look at long-term goals and how am I setting myself up for the future. But with some of the companies I invest in, I may not see a paycheck for a long time.”

When it comes to selecting her investment targets, Vonn relies on the same criteria she used for picking sponsors and brand partners, basing her choices on personal relationships and the strength of the leadership.

Take, for instance, her deal with Under Armour, which dates back to 2006 — when, according to Vonn, “they didn’t even have shoes and barely had a women’s line.” But she chose to work with the Baltimore-based upstart because of its charismatic founder, Kevin Plank. “He just believed in me as much as I believed in him, and I knew this was going to be a great partnership,” she told FN.

And though Plank stepped back from his leadership role in 2019 to serve as executive chairman, Vonn remains a committed partner, now collaborating with UA and Johnson on the Project Rock brand.

Over the years, Vonn has fronted numerous ads for the brand and helped it extend beyond its gridiron origins to connect with women. Sean Eggert, SVP of global sports marketing at Under Armour said, “As a voice for many ground-breaking Under Armour campaigns, Lindsey has inspired athletes of all ages to achieve greatness. Her contributions to the brand can be seen far beyond her sport.”

Looking Like a Boss

Vonn’s transition from athlete to businesswoman is evident in her fashion aesthetic as well, according to stylist Kara Wilson, who has been working with the sports icon for the past five years, after being introduced by Vonn’s sister Karin Kildow.

She recalled that in Vonn’s earlier red-carpet appearances, she tended to dress more overtly sexy, perhaps as a counterpoint to her day job. “She wanted to be more glamorous when she wasn’t having to be in ski gear,” said Wilson. “Since she’s retired, it’s morphed into more of a boss kind of business attire, where she’s wearing really chic, tailored suiting.”

CREDIT: Sage East

Indeed, while making the rounds in New York for her book tour this month, Vonn upped her game with a series of boss-lady suit ensembles from brands like Gucci, Thom Browne, Armani and Missoni, paired with sharp stiletto heels and boots from Giuseppe Zanotti and Manolo Blahnik.

Those high heels aren’t necessarily a given for Vonn, though.

“I love the sky-high heels on the red carpet,” said Wilson. “Lindsey does not. She would love to just be in sneakers or boots wherever she can, but she also knows that sometimes for the picture, she’s got to suck up the pain and just do it for the look, and I appreciate that.”

Throughout her decades in competition, Vonn helped to shape a modern image of women in sports, one that embraced femininity and, yes, sex appeal — thought it wasn’t always accepted. As she recalls in her memoir, there was criticism from fellow skiers when she began wearing makeup in competition and when she posed for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

“Everyone, athletes included, should wear whatever makes them feel good,” she writes in “Rise.” “I never set out to make a statement with it, but I do think that my racing in makeup helped change the public’s perspective on how an athlete can look.”

She’s bringing that same powerful vision to her newest projects, including the Legacy skiwear collection with Head.

“It’s got, I feel like, a very classic look — kind of ’70s,” Vonn told FN, citing the 1969 Robert Redford film “Downhill Racer” as a major inspiration. “That’s kind of my vision of what I want it to be — après-ski chic with incredible performance.” Another key influence for the collection is Princess Diana, who famously wore a Head ski suit and matching headband during royal family vacations in the 1980s.

Roman Stepek, global VP for the sporting goods brand, added, “With the Legacy line, we want to offer a more fashionable approach to Head Sportswear that still reflects the brand DNA with highly functional fabrics. In Lindsey Vonn we have found the ideal partner for the Legacy line. A fascinating skier and extremely stylish athlete at the same time.”

Turning a Page

Though she told FN she’s in a “really good place now,” Vonn has been open about the challenge of transitioning out of sports.

In her memoir she describes going through a grieving process after hanging up her skis “because it was like part of me had died,” she wrote. And Vonn, who has suffered from depression since she was 18, fell into another dark period. However, by being off the circuit and traveling less she was able to undergo intense therapy — and she felt more comfortable leaning on friends and family after going public about her struggles in 2012.

When Vonn came forward with her confession a decade ago, many speculated that it could cost her sponsorships if brands doubted her mental fitness. “When I first started talking about it, I felt a huge relief, but it was very much unaccepted,” she told FN. “A lot of people who were battling depression told me they were so thankful for the conversation that I started, but it’s not like it is now.”

Today, mental health issues are at the forefront due to the stresses of the pandemic. And recently, other sports stars, including Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, have helped to shift public opinion by being open and candid about their own challenges. But Vonn believes there is still a stigma around the topic, one that’s often intensified by media headlines. “The important thing, though, is that we’re talking about it now and get help to those who need it,” she said. By speaking about the topic on her book tour this month, she continued to shine the light.

Another personal mission for Vonn is tackling gender equality in sports. In 2017, Vonn petitioned the International Ski Federation for permission to compete against men. No ruling was ever issued on the matter. It was Vonn’s injuries and retirement that ended the debate — at least for now. As she writes in “Rise,” “I may not have won that one, but I do think I changed the game for women in skiing. I spoke my mind. I used men’s skis. I did things my way.”

The outdoor industry overall has long suffered from a lack of female leadership within the sports and at major brands and retailers. Vonn told FN she’s encouraged by the fact that the U.S. Ski Team named its first female CEO last fall — Sophie Goldschmidt. The coaching staff, meanwhile, remains almost entirely male (though she added that’s in part because coaching jobs are low paid and physically grueling). “The door is more open, but we just have to keep working at it,” she said.

As for her predictions for the ski team at the 2022 Olympics, Vonn — who will be a prime-time correspondent for NBC in Beijing — has high hopes for U.S. stars Breezy Johnson and Mikaela Shiffrin and said there are some newcomers on the women’s side who will also be exciting to watch.

CREDIT: Sage East

Another way she has addressed inclusion is through the Lindsey Vonn Foundation, which helps provide scholarships so that more young girls — and boys — can engage in sports like skiing, which has a tremendously high barrier to entry in terms of access and cost.

There is an amusing anecdote in “Rise” recalling the moment when Vonn (age 9) tells her father of her ambition to compete in the Olympics. Remarkably, he takes her seriously, helping to sketch out a training plan for the next eight years — as well as a business plan. “‘If you want to be a skier, you don’t want to be a ski bum,’” he tells her in the book.

They set out to make her marketable, launching a website and staging their own photo shoot with clothes borrowed from a local ski shop.

It was clearly the start of a sound strategy. In addition to Under Armour and Head, Vonn has also been sponsored by Red Bull, Land Rover and many others, and appeared in ads for everything from Beats by Dre to Bounty toilet paper.

But she said their initial plan was merely a means of survival. “Ski racing is not a lucrative sport by any stretch. It’s not like basketball where you could have one contract and be good for the rest of your life,” Vonn told FN. In fact, an Olympic gold medalist makes $37,500 before taxes — and that’s the biggest purse in skiing.

What’s more, there is the physical risk. “Skiing is similar to football where nothing is guaranteed. Your body is taking a huge toll every time you’re out on the field of play,” she said.

For the today’s young athletes — especially college players who can now benefit financially from the NCAA’s changed name, image and likeness rules — she advises them to seize the day.

“The main thing is stay focused on your job, which is, you know, to play well, but also be smart about how you approach it,” she said. “The paychecks won’t always be there. That’s the thing about being a professional athlete, a lot of people think that when you have success, it’s always going to be there. And that’s never the case, no matter who you are — except for maybe Tom Brady.”

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