Lindsey Vonn is in a good place heading into the World Cup season — a “really happy place” as she’s fond of calling it.
Just a year ago, her personal life was turned upside down when she separated from her husband of four years.
Since then, the U.S. skier has put the split behind her and rekindled relationships with teammates. She’s also feeling as strong as ever after taking a different training approach this offseason to save wear and tear on her balky left knee.
And sure, defending her overall title this season remains at the top of her to-do list. So is this: eclipsing the 2,000-point plateau after finishing just 20 away last season. She would like nothing more than to join Austrian great Hermann Maier as the only skiers to attain that lofty mark.
“I want to try to improve on what I did last year,” Vonn said in an interview from Portillo, Chile, where she’s training with the U.S. squad. “That may not be possible. But that’s what I’m going to try and do.”
In the midst of her personal strife last season, Vonn found solace in the one place that’s always been her sanctuary — the slopes. Once she clicked into her skis, Vonn was all business as she captured 12 World Cup races, putting her within striking distance of becoming the all-time winningest female skier. She has 53 career victories, trailing only Annemarie Moser-Proell of Austria (62) and Vreni Schneider of Switzerland (55).
“She has raised the bar as to what is capable for a female ski racer,” women’s speed coach Chip White said. “The scary thing now is she is showing no signs of slowing down.”
What helped last season was having family and friends constantly around, taking her mind off any problems away from the race course. This year, her younger sister, Laura, will take a year off from school and travel around the circuit with her.
“Life is very, very different for me right now,” said Vonn, a four-time World Cup overall winner from Vail, Colo. “But I am in a really happy place. This is a new chapter. I’m ready for it.”
She wasn’t ready for this — intense tabloid speculation.
Vonn is used to making headlines for wins, not over whom she may be dating. It’s been a difficult adjustment, especially since most of the rumors have been way off the mark. None more than reports linking her with quarterback Tim Tebow after “Tebowing” following her super-G win in Beaver Creek last December.
“I guess that’s a new part of my life, too,” she said. “It seems like whoever I’m friends with, people start to think I’m dating them. It’s all crazy to me. I’m just happy being single.”
By Vonn’s standards, this summer was a low-key break from the snow. There were no trips down the red carpet or guest appearances on “Law & Order.”
Instead, she traipsed through Europe with her sisters, culminating with a visit to the luxurious beaches in the southern French resort town of Saint Tropez, attended a Rascal Flatts concert in North Carolina and ventured over to London for the Olympics.
While there, she watched Gabby Douglas win the gymnastics all-around, saw Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps capture gold in the pool, caught a few Team USA men’s basketball games and was in the stands when her favorite tennis player, Roger Federer, fell in the Olympic final to Andy Murray.
“It’s so different when you’re actually there to watch — you get to see more emotion,” Vonn said. “I actually knew the stories behind all the athletes, instead of just being in my own bubble and focusing on my own competition.”
Being there, though, made her antsy for the 2014 Sochi Games.
“I was wondering why I wasn’t competing,” said Vonn, who captured the Olympic downhill gold medal in Vancouver. “I’m ready to race.”
Soon, she will step back into the starting gate. In just a month, the World Cup season begins with a giant slalom competition in Soelden, Austria.
She’s confident her knees will hold up to a grueling season.
This offseason, Vonn altered her training routine, spending less time running and more time on the bike. She also lifted more weights and went through more agility drills.
She had to, given the aches in her knees, which bothered her most of last season. As tests after the year revealed, she had some fraying of the meniscus in her left knee, but no tear. Her right knee was fine.
“I can’t do quite the (training) load I have the last two years. I have to accept the fact my knees can’t take that load anymore,” said Vonn, who turns 28 on Oct. 18. “It’s always going to hurt when it’s bumpy and the conditions are tough. But my knees definitely feel better now than last year and I’m happy with that.”
These days, Vonn has been a fixture around teammates, attending dinners and functions. The other day in Portillo, the squad put on a talent show, with Laurenne Ross playing a mean guitar and Abby Ghent belting out some songs.
“Oh no, I was in charge of videotaping it,” she said, laughing. “I was just a cheerleader.
“I feel like my relationship with the girls on the team is a lot better. We all get along great. The energy and atmosphere on the team is really positive and a lot different for me.”
As for the season, Vonn’s eager to charge after another title. It won’t be easy, though, with good friend and rival Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany always in the mix, along with Tina Maze of Slovenia and, of course, American teammate Julia Mancuso.
The first order of business for Vonn over the offseason — for most skiers, really — was getting used to new giant slalom skis. To make the discipline safer, the International Ski Federation altered the hourglass shape of the skis and the rules go into effect this season.
Her performance in the GS could play an integral role in whether she eclipses 2,000 points. The discipline has long been a bugaboo of Vonn, but she’s making tremendous strides. She had 455 points in the GS last season, which was more than she had in the last three seasons combined.
“My goal is to try to win races, try to minimize the mistakes, try to be as smart as I can with every single race,” Vonn said. “Yeah, 2,000 points would be great. But I don’t know if it’s something I should focus on. If it happens, it will happen.”
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