It's not an exaggeration to say that Lindsey Vonn is the most successful female skier of all time — it's just fact. She's the only American woman to ever take home gold in downhill skiing at the Olympics, and she's also the only American woman with four World Cup titles. So, what could possibly be left for her to tackle now? In a few days, the International Ski Federation (FIS) will review a proposal that would allow Vonn to be able to race against men in the 2018 World Cup, ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang.
Despite Vonn's accolades and respect in the industry, some officials in the field still aren't convinced this is a good idea. In June, the race director of the FIS, Atle Skaardal, called it a "difficult challenge" in a statement. "One point that everyone is underestimating, is that we need to have equal rights for everyone," Skaardal says. "So, if the ladies are allowed to race with the men, then also the men need to be authorized to ski with the ladies. And I’m not sure this is a direction we want to go."
It's unclear how this will play out, and what this could mean for the future of the sport, specifically at the Olympic Games. But Vonn's proposal is a huge step for gender equality in athletics, because it puts the emphasis on physical accomplishments, rather than gender. Vonn told us why this step is so important to her at an event for Under Armour's "Unlike Any" campaign, which celebrates female athletes that rise above gender comparisons and stand on their own, like Misty Copeland, Jessie Graff, and Natasha Hastings.
Why is the opportunity to race against men so important to you? Do you view it as a career highlight or a moment in history — or both?
"I kind of came upon the idea when I was training with the men in 2011 and 2012. All my training times were right there with the best male skier in the World Cup, and I thought, If I’m training with them, and I’m right there with them, why can’t I race with them? I’ve won more World Cups than any other female skier, and I think it would be an amazing opportunity to race against the men, because they're the next level.
"So, I’ve been talking about it for a long time, but it's never really gone anywhere. Now we're really pushing hard, we're pushing the International Ski Federation, and we have a proposal that will be heard by the Fitness Council in a few days. Hopefully I'll be able to get this opportunity, but it’s more of a personal ambition. I just feel like when I ski against men I push myself to my absolute limit. I’m not thinking about winning titles, or how many points I get — it’s not calculated, it’s pure instinct. That's where I want to go: I want to push myself to my limit, and I think racing against the men would bring that out of me. So, I really hope I get the opportunity."
What has the reaction been like from your teammates and peers?
"I mean, I think the majority of the men are behind me. They think I should be given the opportunity. I think there are definitely a few that don’t agree with it, but more so it’s institutionally that they don’t agree with it — and that's the problem. The Ski Federation does not want it to happen. My team, the U.S. Ski Team, is behind me, my coaches are behind me, and hopefully we get enough people that are on board that we can override the institution."
You recently recovered from a severe injury. How did that challenge your mindset going into training?
"It was a really intense injury, I lost feeling in my hand for several weeks, and I had really bad nerve damage. But I think the biggest challenge for me was being able to compete with a physical disadvantage. With my knee injuries and things like that, I feel like those were injuries that over time you can overcome. But damaging your nerve is something that could potentially be permanent, so that was difficult for me to kind of accept mentally and still fight through it."
What advice would you give a young female athlete who feels like she's not getting enough opportunities simply for being a woman?
"I would say, find things to do on your own time that will push you harder. Just because someone else won’t let you or doesn’t want you to push yourself, doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to push yourself. You can watch video, watch what other people are doing, watch what men are doing, find a way to — even if it's on your own — find a way to challenge yourself. Because even if people don’t want you to, theres always a way."