Vonn began skiing in Minnesota, where she grew up, when she was 6 years old. By her early teens, Vonn said that she knew she wanted to pursue skiing on the Olympic level. Over the next two decades, she went on to win a slew of awards, including two World Championship titles, that made her the most successful American ski racer.
But skiing at this elite level took its toll — Vonn, a millennial herself, struggled with painful injuries, especially in the later years of her career, and depression. HBO is releasing a documentary about her final World Championship later this month.
“It’s been an interesting career,” Vonn, 35, said. “There were more downs than ups, I would say. I dealt with immense pressure to be perfect. A lot of the time, with athletes, we’re expected to be perfect. I even look up to other athletes, and I think, ‘Wow, he has such a perfect life. I can’t imagine it’s not perfect.' But it’s a total misconception, everyone struggles no matter what job you do, there’s always expectation, and not everyone handles everything the same."
Vonn said that in the last eight months of her career, she had three surgeries. Spending so much time in the hospital was the final straw, she said. In February she announced her retirement.
“I just wasn’t healthy anymore,” Vonn said. “My fiancé P.K. [Subban] said, ‘I can’t sit back and watch you do this to yourself. I can’t let you put yourself in a wheelchair.’ Physical health was and is so important to me, and that’s one of the reasons I stopped so early. I’m still young and I’m hurting every day.”
Even though Vonn had built much of her identity around skiing, the thought of losing her ability to be active because of racing was sobering. She hung up her poles, but that adjustment hasn’t been easy either.
“It’s hard to feel 100% confident without skiing,” Vonn said. “A lot of times I feel just incredibly insecure, without that anchor in my life. Some days I wake up and I feel like I’m a complete failure, and other days I wake up and I feel really good.”
In 2012, Vonn revealed in an interview that she had depression and was taking antidepressants to manage it. It was freeing and empowering to tell the world, she said.
“Therapy and medication drastically improved my life,” Vonn said. “I never told anyone this was something I struggled with, not even my family, until after I was divorced [in 2011 from Thomas Vonn]. It felt like it was a step I needed to take to move forward.”
She said that millennials are much more open about discussing mental health issues than previous generations. This has helped eliminate the shame that used to come with sharing those struggles and has made it easier for people to ask for help.