Sports

My rocky, muddy, super-competitive 24 hours with Olympic legend Lindsey Vonn

LINDSEY VONN IS racing downhill. It’s a muggy September morning in Asheville, North Carolina, and the most decorated woman in ski racing history just spilled coffee on her sleeve. Her white tennis shoes are caked in mud. As she jogs along a rocky dirt road still wet from last night’s rain, Vonn notices that I am wearing a backpack, rain jacket and waterproof hiking shoes.

“How’d you know to bring those?” Vonn asks as we close in on our third teammate, Hilaree Nelson. “No one told me to bring a backpack. No one told me to bring a rain jacket. Or a pillow. Or that there would be running!”

About 50 meters ahead, Nelson, a renowned climber and ski mountaineer from Telluride, Colorado, arrives at the first checkpoint, where a competition director hands her the GPS coordinates for our Land Rover Defender SUV. The three of us turn and begin confidently speed-walking uphill.

Except… we’re going in the wrong direction.

“We’re on the wrong side of the fence,” Nelson says, realizing our mistake. “That means we’re farther from the car than we initially thought,” I say, as we turn around and jog downhill to the checkpoint and head west — the correct direction — toward our vehicle.

“I can still see the other teams,” Vonn says. “They aren’t too far ahead.”

This isn’t a race, but that’s not to say speed doesn’t matter. The first teams to their cars will chart their own paths through the course without worrying about being blocked by other teams. We need to correct our mistake — and fast.

“I didn’t realize I needed a knee replacement for this,” Vonn jokes as we walk-jog more than a mile through overgrowth and mud. She’s had four reconstructive surgeries on her right knee, and her left is missing its lateral collateral ligament. Both knees cause her pain.

Vonn is the reason I’m here, competing in Land Rover TReK, and I hope my navigation and driving skills are enough to help Team Rocky Road compete for a win. Vonn came up with our team name last night, a nod to the course, the mountain towns we all live in and, of course, ice cream. After announcing our name to the group, she added that it will be more fulfilling when we arrive at the top — win — because we took a rocky road.

Even at this stage of her life, two years into retirement, Vonn is an elite athlete with the hypercompetitive mindset that winning is everything. I don’t want to let her down.

TREK, WHICH LAND Rover created in the mid-1990s, is a one-day competition designed to test each three-person team’s off-road knowledge, driving and recovery skills and physical fitness. Teams must be able to strategize, prioritize, problem solve and work together. The course snakes through the private, off-road trails of the historic Biltmore Estate, 8,000 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains that includes working farms, vineyards, a four-star hotel and the onetime home of George and Edith Vanderbilt. In 2019, the company held its first TReK competition for automotive journalists. In 2021, it added a twist.

Vonn, 36, is a longtime partner of Jaguar Land Rover and agreed to compete against the media. In August, I received an invitation to join her team. Of all the reasons I was compelled to say yes, the opportunity to be teammates with Vonn, a fierce, fearless competitor from a ruthless, insular sport, topped the list. What would she be like as a teammate? Why did she want to compete in TReK? Did she know what she was getting into? Heck, did I?

Over 24 hours in September, Vonn, Nelson and I pushed ourselves physically and mentally and answered those questions. Vonn is getting to know herself in this next chapter of life. Saying yes to opportunities like TReK is her way of seeking out start gates, of returning to a beginner’s mindset and finding out where else she might excel. As a ski racer, Vonn was meticulous in her preparation, skiing a course thousands of times in her mind. Now, she is embracing the moments when she is unaware and unprepared for what comes next.

“I love driving, and there’s not a lot of opportunities to really off-road,” says Vonn, who owns a Defender and does a bit of off-road driving around her property in Park City. “This is going to be rugged and gnarly. These are opportunities for me to learn things I would never get the opportunity to learn otherwise. And it’s really good for me mentally. If I’m not using my brain or body to the extreme, I have pent-up energy.”

These opportunities also require being OK with not being the best, with knowing that our team is not the favorite to win. The other teams are made up of experienced off-road drivers and automotive experts, some of whom have previously competed in this event and know what to expect.

“Being the greatest at something is pretty awesome,” Vonn says. “But it took me my whole life to get to that point. Whatever I do now, I’m going to be learning and it’s going to be a challenge. I want the challenge.”

That includes finding out how she’ll react to being one-third of a team.

“I’ve never been a true teammate,” Vonn says. “I’m not good at relying on other people. I always feel I’m better off doing it myself because I don’t want to get let down. For me, the challenge will be letting go and not being in control.”

THE NIGHT BEFORE the event, the six teams, contest designers, course directors and Land Rover employees gather for dinner under a tent in a massive field on the estate. After a formal welcome filmed for an Outside documentary, an event director asks each competitor — 16 journalists, Vonn and Nelson — to introduce themselves.

“I used to ski,” Vonn says when it’s her turn. “Now I like to drive fast, so I’m excited to be here. Oh, and win. I like to win.”

After introductions, the director clarifies the rules, reviews emergency procedures and explains that while each team will receive a map that includes 12 challenges, no team will have time to complete them all. “You’d have to be an Olympic-caliber athlete to do that,” he jokes.

“Perfect!” Vonn responds.

He also reminds competitors to heed the speed limit around the property: 20 mph at all times and 5 mph near the vineyards. “They’re trying to keep dust off the grapes,” he says.

“Twenty? What the heck is this?” Vonn says, jumping to her feet and feigning fury. She later tells me she’s as much of a speed seeker on four wheels as she is on two planks. Last winter, she spun doughnuts in her rental car on New York City’s West Side Highway on a snowy afternoon. “If I’m going under 80, it feels like I’m crawling,” she tells the group. “I don’t do slow.”

“It’s intense driving,” someone says. “It will feel fast.”

Nothing feels fast at 20,” Vonn says to me.

The contest director explains that strategy and time management will be key to maximizing points. The team that completes a challenge the fastest — and the most accurately — will receive maximum points. Completing more challenges faster and more accurately than your competitors is a good strategy for a win, he says.

“But what’s the prize for winning?” Vonn asks the group.

“Bragging rights.”

“Oh,” Vonn says, “and I will brag.”

WE AWAKEN THURSDAY morning to the sound of a gong. It’s 6 a.m., an hour before start time, and last night’s rain has finally stopped. We dress inside our tents, in matching gray, long-sleeve shirts and hiking pants, pack up our sleeping bags and meet under the tent for breakfast.

“Did the rain keep you up?” I ask Nelson, who says she didn’t hear a thing.

“I had earplugs in,” she says. “Didn’t you?”

She’s a pro at this whole sleeping-under-the-stars thing. To the first woman to climb Mount Everest and neighboring Lhotse in 24 hours, a night in a warm tent at sea level probably felt like glamping.

“How’d you sleep?” I ask Vonn, who told me it’s been years since she camped with her family as a kid. She’d never blown up an inflatable mattress pad before last night.

“You know how they told us not to get our sleeping bags wet?” Vonn says, and turns her head to glare at her 5-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Lucy. “I slept with a wet dog in mine. I used my sweatshirt as a pillow. But it’s fine. I’m from Minnesota. We can be rugged, and we can go to a five-star restaurant. I like having range.”

As she describes her night, I wonder how many athletes of Vonn’s prominence would be so adaptable and lighthearted. How would I have reacted if no one provided me with the event overview that was sent to the 17 other competitors? I received the document, and I was still worried. Had I studied enough? Would the few off-road navigation rallies I’d competed in be enough to keep me from being the weak link on Vonn’s team? Under pressure, would I remember how to operate a hi-lift?!

Nelson, too, had studied the document and arrived prepared: her waterproof North Face suitcase included bike shorts, a swimsuit, multiple types of shoes and two rain jackets. In her world, you control everything you possibly can. Yet she was also nervous. “This is so outside of my box,” she says. “I’ve never done anything like this.”

But Vonn isn’t nervous. Despite her lack of preparation or knowledge of what we were about to do, she is chill and confident as she grabs a croissant and coffee. Her attitude is contagious.

Then she hits me.

“Sorry!” she yells, after reaching across the breakfast table to slap my hand. “I got it!”

I look at the back of my hand, find a black smudge and start laughing.

“I didn’t want you to get a mosquito bite on your hand,” Vonn says. “That could derail our whole plan.”

She pauses, then adds, “Hey, that’s teamwork right there. I feel like that was a great first step in proving I can work on a team. Smacking Alyssa at breakfast. I’m a team player.”

I’M RUNNING AHEAD of the Defender, my arms outstretched overhead like an NFL referee, tracing the line I believe will be the smoothest for Vonn to drive. She can’t hear me at this distance, so after mapping a course, I stop and point to where I want Vonn to place her tires. She deftly navigates the SUV up a steep, off-camber bank and lifts two wheels off the ground as she makes a sharp right-hand turn and points its nose toward the tree next to me.

“Closer! Keep coming!” I yell and mime with my hands.

We are midway through the trickiest driving challenge of the day. On the nose of the car, the contest director has attached a paper ticket with nine small images — star, moon, flower — that correspond to small hole punches tied to trees throughout the route. Each team must navigate through the tight course, placing the nose of the Defender close enough to each tree that the hole punch can punch the ticket.

In the driver’s seat, despite the car’s many cameras, Vonn has blind spots and can’t see all of the obstacles in front of her. She needs to drive the tricky terrain at unnatural angles with confidence, while taking direction from her navigators inside and out of the car.

After the next tree, Nelson and I switch roles and I hop in the navigator’s seat. Nelson runs ahead and locates the next hole punch, which is midway up a steep rock section and requires a sharp left-hand turn midway up the climb. “More to the left! More to the left!” Nelson yells as Vonn begins to rock crawl toward the tree. Nelson is intense and focused. Her eyes never leave the ground as she shouts directions our way.

“I’ve got it,” Vonn says loudly enough that only I can hear. “I know. I got this. I can do it.” She is not listening.

Vonn doesn’t question her moves. When her tires slip on the rocks and the SUV loses traction, she doesn’t flinch or take her foot off the gas, a common mistake. I am both impressed by her assuredness and reminded of a quote I read shortly after she retired.

“I keep my foot on the gas until I’m literally in the fence,” Vonn told The Ringer about her penchant for crash-or-win racing. “Most people would brake before they run their car off the edge of a cliff. I still have my foot on the gas trying to pull out of the crash while I’m going off the cliff.”

Nelson is giving Vonn vital input about terrain she can’t see, trying to keep her out of the fence. At first, I see the person Vonn described to me earlier, a woman who would rather go it alone than place her trust in someone else. And then I see a shift. “OK!” Vonn yells out the window to Nelson. “What next?” I watch her realize — or maybe remember — that Nelson is on her team. Nelson wants her to win.

That attitude shift lasts the remainder of the day. When challenge No. 7 calls for precise navigation, Vonn tells us she will take a backseat. “This is your strength,” she says. “You two have got this!”

“THIS IS THE first time I’ve put on a race bib in two years,” Vonn says as she shows off a bright orange “TEAM 6” bib and mugs for the documentary cameras.

Vonn skied her last professional race at the February 2019 world championships in Are, Sweden. Despite persistent and excruciating pain in both of her surgically repaired knees and a scary crash in the super G five days earlier, she took bronze in the downhill and called it a career. In many ways, it was a storybook ending to a storied career. In other ways, it was a complete disappointment. Vonn had planned to retire 10 months later, after beating Ingemar Stenmark’s World Cup wins record of 86. But her body could no longer comply, and she finished four short of her goal.

“I think I am luckier than most skiers, to be honest,” Vonn says. “Most people can’t have one last race. I knew I would retire at some point, but it was different to wake up one day and what you did your whole life is no longer what you do ever again. That’s the thing. If most people change careers, you can usually go back. But for me, it’s done. That was a hard transition.”

During those final months of her career, as HBO cameras followed her for an all-access documentary, Vonn began writing a memoir. In November 2018, she crashed during a training run at Copper Mountain and tore the lateral collateral ligament and sustained multiple fractures in her left knee. Still, she continued to write.

When she finished the book in late 2019, she realized she had written it from a dark emotional place. As she read over it, she didn’t recognize herself on the page. The tone was too negative. “I wanted to get it right,” Vonn says. “So, I wrote it again.”

As the months ticked by, Vonn found her perspective changing. She was more at peace with life after racing, more comfortable in her own skin. This past winter, she spent time at home in Park City, just her and her dogs, recalibrating her priorities. Those closest to her noticed the shift, too. “They’re like, ‘This is the happiest I’ve ever seen you and you seem really comfortable with yourself,'” Vonn says. “That’s exactly what it is. I’m really comfortable being me.”

“Rise,” due out in January 2022, delves into mental health and Vonn’s struggles with depression, which she began speaking about publicly in 2012. “Back then, it was like, ‘Oh my god, why would you talk about this?'” Vonn says. “I got the feeling people thought there was something wrong with me. I’m really happy mental health has become more of a frequent and normal conversation.”

Since her final World Cup race, she’s taken a Harvard Business School class, interned with a venture capitalist and become an advisory board member for two funds. She wants to support woman- and Black-owned businesses, especially those focused on technologies to democratize health care. She’s pursuing a ride with Jaguar in the Formula E racing series. She designed a new line with Head Sportswear due out in mid-October and became the first global ambassador for The Rock’s Project Rock line with Under Armour.

This past winter, she skied for fun with her family for the first time since she was 12 and has been splitting time between New York, Park City and Los Angeles, reconnecting with friends and deciding what else comes next. The week after TReK, she will attend the opening gala of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in L.A. and then head to Italy for a vacation with friends. “I really miss Europe,” she says. “I can’t wait to go back.”

As the Beijing Games approach, Vonn is deciding her role in the sport moving forward. Last year, she served as an adviser to the U.S. ski team’s CEO. She created a separate email address for women in the sport to reach out to her for advice.

“No matter how happy I am in life, I still miss racing and I still would love to be racing at the Olympics,” Vonn says. “I still love ski racing and always will.”

When she looks back on her career, Vonn says she sees the added strain her sport placed upon her mental health. “There’s this misperception that athletes are superhumans,” Vonn says. “And while we do physically superhuman things, we are far from it. I think it’s 10 times more isolating being an athlete than having a normal job. Imagine going to work every day and only seeing three or four people. You can have all the success in the world, but you still go back to an empty hotel room. At the end of the day, it’s all about how you feel when you turn off the lights at night when no one’s around. It’s just you. And that’s a very scary place sometimes.”

I ask Vonn whether her newfound perspective and happiness follow her into the dark.

“Now it doesn’t matter where I am, what I’m doing, lights on, lights off, strobe lights,” Vonn says. “I’m happy. Even when I wake up in the middle of the night in a tent with my wet dog.”

WE ARRIVE AT checkpoint 10 and realize quickly why it’s one to skip. The challenge requires teams to pull a hi-lift (a tall, heavy jack typically used to hoist farm equipment) off the car’s roof, attach it to a tree and the car using chains and tow straps, and turn it into a medieval winch to pull our 5,500-pound car backward, up a hill about two car lengths.

“A lot of teams time out of this one,” a Land Rover rep tells me. “Especially guys. They start out too fast and burn out quickly.”

In the car, we hatch a plan: The three of us will take turns working the winch so no one is ever in danger of tapping out. But on site, we realize someone has to remain in the car to work the brake.

“You’re the lightest. Get in the car,” Vonn tells me. “Hilaree and I have got this.”

Ten minutes go by, then 15 … 20. From the front seat, I’m frustrated. I feel useless, like I’m not pulling my weight (or the car’s). “Brake on!” they yell when they need to rest and swap the tow chains. “Brake on!” I reply and stop the car’s movement.

“You guys OK back there?” I yell after 30 minutes. “I’m fresh up here and ready to help!”

No response. A few minutes later, Vonn sprints toward the front of the car. She is soaking wet, her blonde ponytail matted to her neck. “Do you need a break?” I yell out the window, then realize she’s not stopping to talk. She is simply switching sides.

“No time!” she yells as she runs. “We have a system. No time to teach you!”

Now it was my turn to learn. When the physical challenges called for all three of us, I pulled my weight. But in this instance, being a good teammate meant being OK with playing a supportive role.

And they weren’t wrong to keep going. No matter how many pushups I can do or how strong I think I am, I am a sportswriter, not an elite athlete. They were not going to defer this physical challenge to me.

Our back tires cross the finish line with more than 10 minutes to spare. I throw the car into park, run water to my teammates and disconnect the winch as they catch their breath. They are dripping with sweat, hair matted to their heads, arm muscles bulging. I climb atop the car to replace the hi-lift and look down. I take a moment to appreciate my badass teammates.

IN ALL, WE complete seven of the 12 challenges. We later find out we finished first or second in all but one and were the fastest and most accurate through the hole-punch and navigation challenges. We build a bridge, use a compass to find puzzle clues and test our communication skills, driving ability and strategy. We also have a lot of fun. “So much more fun than I expected,” Nelson says.

As we pass a field of cows grazing near a cornfield, Vonn leans out the driver’s window. “Mooooo! Moooo!” she yells toward the herd. “Hey guys! What’s up?”

“Anyone else having a ‘Children of the Corn’ moment?” Nelson asks.

On the way to our penultimate challenge, as we wonder whether our scores will hold up against the competition, Vonn begins to hum.

“Bum ba dum dum … bum ba dum dum!”

“Is that the theme song to ‘Star Wars’?” Nelson asks and joins in with a slightly different version. “No! It’s ‘Indiana Jones’!” Vonn says. “This is so ‘Indiana Jones.'” She and Nelson begin humming together.

I join, a bit too loudly, and then realize I’m not sure I know either of those songs. “I think I’m humming the theme song to ‘The A-Team,'” I say.

“We are the A-team!” Vonn says.

THE THREE OF us are standing in a field holding hands, heads bowed like the final contestants on “American Idol.” We’re surrounded by the other competitors, who all look just as nervous as we feel. We’re hamming it up for the cameras, but jokes aside, we’re really hoping to hear our team name in first place. As the only all-woman team — and the only team that included two elite athletes — we had targets on our backs all day. We also know victory might be out of reach, since one team finished more challenges.

The contest director congratulates everyone and then reads off the teams in reverse order, starting with sixth place. When we realize we’ve made the top three, we let go of one another’s hands and jump up and down.

“We made the podium!” Vonn says. “I’ll take a podium finish. Or a win.”

He announces third place, and we’re still alive. The two remaining teams step to the front of the group.

“In second place … Team Rocky Road.” We laugh, high-five each other and the winners, and pose with our trophy. As much as we wanted that win, we are surprised by how happy we are with second place. “Hey … first is the worst,” one of the other competitors jokes.

“We’ll get ’em next year,” Vonn says later. “Our three minds, with our combined skill set, we’re a pretty great team. Team Rocky Road will be back.”

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