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March 31st, 2011
I haven’t spoken to Julia Mancuso or Lindsey Vonn (then Kildow) since they were probably 14 years old. In all likelihood, they don’t remember me at all. But I gave talks at a number of Erich Sailer summer and fall camps in which they were in attendance. I have been, however, a keen follower of their careers since their early successes to their current place at or near the top of the women’s alpine ski racing food chain. I’ve watched them train and race a number of times. And I’ve spoken at length with their coaches and teammates over the years. So, this article is about what I have observed and appreciated about Julia and Lindsey, not what is in their hearts and minds (to which I don’t have access).
The first thing I noticed about them in those early years when they were both already showing prodigious talent and that continues to this day is how different they are. Lindsey appears, as my title suggests, like ice, cool and calculating, serious and intensely focused. She seems to approach her ski racing as she would a job, with a clearly defined structure and process aimed at accomplishing specific goals. Not surprising given that her father Alan Kildow, a former national junior champion in his own right and an attorney, had, word has it, pushed her hard and raised her to be a champion. Additionally, Lindsey’s early skiing was at Buck Hill, Minnesota where, with a vertical drop of only 310 feet, skiing was all business with the only thing to do being to run gate after gate after gate.
Julia, by contrast, is more like fire, burning hot and bright, spontaneous, happy-go-lucky, and rarely focused on her racing. For her, ski racing has always seemed like play; all about having a good time. She was raised in Lake Tahoe in a, shall we say, colorful family, where love of the mountains and skiing was central to their lives. Her exposure to big mountain skiing and deep powder fueled her free spirit and her joie de vivre. I get the sense that Julia, though I’m sure she has competitive goals that she sets for herself, is more concerned with the love of ski racing and the visceral thrill of the race itself than with her results (not unlike Bode Miller).
These very different personality styles evidence themselves in their training and race preparations. While Lindsey looks serious and intent as she gets ready for training and race runs, Julia is smiling and chatting it up with whomever is present. Lindsey’s pre-race routine is methodical, precise, and calm, while Julia’s is loose, playful, and energetic.
And, though this is purely speculation, I’m going to suggest that their divergent styles may account, in part, for their differences in consistency over the years. It has been my professional experience that emotions often dictate athletes’ consistency and Lindsey and Julia appear to have vastly different emotional lives. Lindsey’s steady emotional demeanor has likely contributed to her remarkable consistency over the years, including her three straight World Cup over-all titles (and only three points from a fourth this year). There never seemed to be surprises in her racing career; everything seems to have been planned and executed with precision.
In contrast, Julia has seen tremendous ups and downs in her career, just like her obviously emotionally open disposition, since her breakthrough gold-medal performance at the 2006 Olympics. And her career is filled with surprises, starting with that stunning Olympic victory in 2006 and continuing with her double-silver-medal performance at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and another silver medal at the 2011 World Championships.
Yet, despite these vast differences in personality and life experiences, Lindsey and Julia share some common attributes that have enabled both of them to become enduring champions.
Regardless of what they do before they get in the starting gate, Lindsey and Julia share one thing as they prepare to leave the gate. In the seconds before the countdown, both women narrow their focus, the outside world goes blurry, and all of their effort and energy become devoted to one simple task: getting to the finish line as fast as they possibly can.
Both have demonstrated a dogged determination to succeed. During this high period in Julia’s ski racing journey, it’s easy to forget the very low points in her career including two years during which she made no visits to the World Cup podium. It would have been easy for Julia to retire on her previous laurels and live an easy life back in the Sierra mountains. But she fought back from a hip injury that required surgery and persistent back problems to earn her first World Cup victory in four years and finish this season in fifth place in the over-all World Cup standings.
In turn, Lindsey’s chances for a fourth consecutive World Cup over-all title seemed to be slim to none after falling behind her good friend Maria Riesch by more than 200 points with only a half dozen races to go. But she never gave up and fought back to take the over-all lead, only to lose the biggest crystal globe of all due to cancellation of the final race of the season (and, I should point out, four straight slalom DNFs earlier in the year).
Both Lindsey and Julia have proven themselves to be “big game” performers. Lindsey demonstrated nerves of steel when she won 2010 Olympic downhill gold while, at the same time, having to bear the often-crushing weight of being anointed “Face of the Olympics” by the world media (recall that Bode crumbled under that weight in 2006) And, if nothing else, Julia’s record epitomizes the ability to rise to the occasion with her aforementioned Olympic and World Championship medals.
I think the greatest lesson that I take away from seeing these two exceptional athletes who are so different in so many ways is that there’s more than one road to the top when it comes to pursuing your ski racing goals. Whether you’re gregarious or stoic, all business or all fun, what matters is that you work hard toward your goals, never lose faith, understand who you are, and then create your own plan and means for striving toward those goals.
(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)
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