Lindsey and Lucy (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
PHILANTHROPY

Lindsey Vonn’s Olympic Mission for Mental Health

“It’s something we should be openly talking about. The more we help each other, the happier we’ll be,” the skier tells Boardroom.

Lindsey Vonn is one of the most decorated skiers of all time. She’s the winner of four overall World Cup titles, a record 82 World Cup races, and three Olympic medals over four games.

With the Tokyo Summer Games arriving later this month, she knows exactly what it’s like to prepare for the ultimate test. To shoulder all the pressure weighing on you every single day leading up to the biggest moment of your athletic life.

“The process never really stops,” she told Boardroom. “You’re on the world stage. Every single person is watching you, millions of people, and it can be very, very overwhelming. I know it was for me in my career.”

The toll the Olympic Games can take on an athlete not just physically, but mentally can become overwhelming — “Probably more so than anything else you’ll ever face in your career, potentially even in your life,” Vonn said.

“You can only have potentially one chance at this opportunity. You get one chance every four years, or sometimes one chance in your life to compete for 20, 40, 60 seconds. That’s so much pressure and so much preparation. A lifetime of preparation for one single moment.”

And that’s why Vonn has partnered with Allianz, the Tokyo Summer Games’ official insurance provider, as a global ambassador to help provide emotional support dogs to skateboarders as they prepare for the sport’s Olympic debut.

This cause is a personal one for Vonn. At her last Olympics, the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, she brought her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Lucy, to Korea. That connection helped her grounded throughout not just that Olympic fortnight, but the final two years of her competitive career.

“It was a really easy way to kind of keep things simple to help give me a different perspective on someone or something that’s always excited to see me whether I win or lose,” she said.

If the mental strain wasn’t heavy enough on these world-class athletes, they also had to train for two or three years straight only to have the Tokyo Games delayed a year due to COVID-19. Vonn sees this as having completely changed the Olympic dynamic, with injured athletes becoming active, some older athletes inching past their primes and unable to compete, and younger competitors getting an earlier-than-expected crack at their lifelong athletic dreams.

So, how would one of the all-time greats in winter sports have handled this delay?

“If it was later in my career, I would’ve been extremely disappointed, because for me and my injuries, I don’t have an extra year,” Vonn told Boardroom. “If I was in that position, I don’t know. It would be incredibly difficult to deal with. But again, if you want to succeed you’ll find a way through it. And I think all of the athletes are well-adapted to challenges.”

“I don’t think any athlete has gotten to the Olympics without significant challenge and adversity. I think we always find a way through it.”

And on top of training for the Olympics themselves, elite competitors like Vonn also have to balance business and sponsorship obligations so they can afford to pursue that ultimate dream in the first place. But her No. 1 priority was always her success on the slopes and sticking to precisely what she needed to do to prepare mentally and physically to compete. Her commercial responsibilities came after.

“I kind of fit it in wherever I could, as long as it wasn’t taking away from my performance,” Vonn said, “As an athlete, you have a really short shelf life, and you have to maximize every opportunity you have. And I was always aware of that from a very young age and early in my career. I used everything as an opportunity and to grow myself as a business and also my sport, and also at the same time trying to be a good role model.” 

As an iconic performer on and off the slopes and one of the greatest competitors of the 21st century in any sport, some might find it surprising that most Olympic athletes don’t take advantage of the unique experiences and insight of a memorable champion like Lindsey Vonn by asking for advice.

That’s another barrier her latest campaign is working to tear down.

“A lot of athletes think it’s a sign of weakness to ask others for help, which it absolutely is not,” she said.  “It’s always okay to ask for help and you should ask for help, to be honest.”

Vonn has advised Olympic golfers in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro when it was a first-time sport, and is doing so with skateboarders like Brazil’s Leticia Bufoni in the event’s first Olympic Games as part of the Allianz program.

“My advice to them was just keeping things simple and not getting distracted by everything that’s going on around them, but remembering why they are there and why they love the sport,” she said. “And hopefully, that helps them mentally to succeed.”

“Mental health is something that we should be openly talking about because the more we help each other, the happier we will all be.”

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