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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Lindsey Vonn speaks about overcoming adversity at Women's Investing Summit

Notre Dame’s Institute for Global Investing hosted the fifth annual Women’s Investing Summit (WIS) Thursday and Friday. Friday’s events kickstarted with an opening keynote speech from former Olympian alpine skier, Lindsey Vonn. 

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Vonn spoke about persevering unfair pay as a female athlete, among other issues, Friday in her speech at Notre Dame's Women's Investing Summit.
Vonn spoke about persevering unfair pay as a female athlete, among other issues, Friday in her speech at Notre Dame's Women's Investing Summit.


Vonn is considered one of the greatest alpine skiers of all time, with 82 world cup wins and three Olympic medals. First hitting the slopes at the age of only 2, Vonn spent most of her life skiing — retiring in 2019 due to injury. In her speech at WIS, Vonn also discussed her experience in the sport and her recent transition into business and philanthropy. 

Among many jokes and anecdotes, Vonn's talk delivered messages about overcoming adversity, the importance of preparation, the art of being a teammate, staying true to one's self and finally, how to move forward.

Overcoming adversity, physically and mentally

Looking back on her career, Vonn determined there was no singular “defining moment.” 

“I don't think it's possible to encapsulate my career in, you know, a brief sentence. I've overcome a lot, I think, and you know, maybe above the wins, people remember me for the fact that I just kept coming back,” Vonn said. “I've been knocked down far too many times. But I think my passion for the sport was always very apparent. I always put my heart on my sleeve.”

Vonn's friend and moderator of the talk, Scott Dahnke, described Vonn’s injuries as something that “would have sidelined virtually any other competitor for their entire career.” 

Yet, Vonn came back. Although she admits that her career was a “roller coaster of adversity,” it is also a well-known comeback storyWhat the audience should take away from this was a message of persistence in all facets of life, Vonn said.

However, Vonn also discussed the universal obstacle of gender challenges in a male-dominated field, particularly unequal pay.

“When I got to a certain point of success, I kept thinking I should be getting paid a little bit more … Thankfully, I had good men around me on the men’s team. And I went through asking how much do you make? And then, I went back to the company and said, ‘I want this much.’ They said, ‘Well, no. You're a woman,’” Vonn explained.

In response to this, Vonn apparently argued that her ratings, followers and accolades were all better than her male counterparts. “And they said ‘Well, you know, women just don’t get these types of contracts.’”

Vonn explained that she had to persevere through this treatment.

“I said, ‘Well, I'm going to,’ and I put my foot down, I got the contract that I wanted and I kept doing that my whole career,” Vonn said. “And I will say, I thank the men for telling me how much they made because had I not known that, I would never have pushed for more. But it's also asking the question, which no woman had ever done.”

Through her numerous injuries and her fight for fair pay, Vonn recalled her most difficult career hurdle: mental health. 

“I struggled a lot with depression, being on the road. You go from winning World Cups, and you know, there are so many people and you’re in front of all the cameras, but it's actually very isolating at the same time. You get back to the hotel and you're alone. And it's a very extreme set of emotions,” Vonn said. “It’s hard to balance everything — to stay positive and to not let those isolated moments really drag you down.”

Vonn turned to journaling and eventually opened up about her struggles in 2012. Although Vonn said “just talking about it was really therapeutic,” she also admitted that the subject of mental health was not widely discussed at the time.

“People would still ask me, ‘are you still struggling with depression? Like, are you taking medicine?’ That's not how it works. It's not like a Tylenol that you take when, you know, you feel sad,” Vonn said. “But I think we’ve come a long way in the last 10 years, talking about mental health, how we approach it and how we take care of each other.”

Vonn offered advice to those facing similar challenges, positing that there is no one way of coping.

“I think we all have to find our own way through it. Whether that’s journaling, whether that’s talking to friends or family, just finding your own way through, and it's obviously very difficult. But I think at the end of the day, skiing was something that brought me a lot of joy, and something that really kept me going. Finding that joy in something can be incredibly beneficial,” Vonn said. “And also dogs … I would recommend three but, you know, one is solid.”

Trusting preparation for success

Vonn dedicated her life to skiing. From the age of nine, she had already set her sights on becoming an Olympic athlete. Thanks in part to her supportive family, Vonn said her dreams were able to become a reality. 

However, Vonn tried in her speech on Friday to define her moments of success not by the achievements themselves, but by the culmination of hard work that led her to those moments. In this way, she said she appreciates the journey, not just its peak. 

“In all walks of life, you see the outcome and you forget about how much work it takes to get there. And everyone wants a shortcut — there are no shortcuts. If you want something long-term, you have to stick with it, and you have to build it,” Vonn said. “And that’s the difference between a lot of successful people I see and people that want to be successful, but they aren’t really putting in the work and time.”

However, Vonn said that, when the moment to shine one's talents comes around, it is important trust all preparation because, “if you don’t believe in yourself, who else will.”

“There’s no second chances. So you either go out on top, or you go out trying,” Vonn said. “I kind of liked those situations where the only option is to succeed. You know, because that leaves little room for doubt or second guessing yourself. You literally just have to throw yourself down a mountain and hope that all of your training, your entire life, has amounted to enough.”

Being a good teammate

Vonn recalled one of the greatest lessons learned at the Olympics as the power of a team.

“What I learned over the course of my career is that being a part of a team and working together is a lot more efficient for everyone than trying to do things as an individual,” Vonn said. “When I was first on the team, I felt the need to prove myself. I didn't feel like I was really accepted because I was so young and the veterans were definitely not excited that I was there all the time. I was fighting so hard to prove myself that I forgot to be a teammate.”

Despite this rough start, Vonn said she eventually realized that they “could do a lot more together.”

“We started to lean on each other. We gave each other course reports and we talked about our tactics and how we’re gonna approach the course and the more we talked, the better we all got,” Vonn said. “That was some of our best years as a team as a whole ... I think every single person on the team, 11 of us, had been in the top five that season, which is pretty crazy.”

Vonn summed it down to simply “elevating each other” and finding support. 

“You’re always going to be competing against yourself, but if you have the team to support you it makes such a big difference. I wish I had learned that earlier in my career,” she said.

Moving forward outside of sport

After a lifetime as a professional athlete, Vonn discussed how she has attempted to move forward and find a new fuel.

“My life has always revolved around skiing, and one morning I woke up and that was gone. And it was really hard to readjust my life,” Vonn said. “I had businesses, I had speaking engagements, I had all of these things that I have around me that I’m very thankful for … but without skiing, I lacked a single goal.”

Vonn said that the adjustment was a process, a sort of switching to “a different calibration in life.” She recognized that skiing was and always will be irreplaceable in her life, but indeed there was room for new endeavors. 

“I tried to find a new passion,” Vonn said. “I’m always looking for a new challenge because I need to keep those challenges coming, because that’s what fulfills me. So, I have a lot of things that I’m juggling, but I like juggling. It’s not skiing, but it’ll do.” 

According to Vonn, some of her most rewarding work has been with the children of the Lindsey Vonn Foundation

“Our mission is to empower underserved girls with scholarships and programs,” Vonn said. “So, I do camps and I try to teach them how to reframe [the] negative to positive. I try to help them think about body positivity, social media, all those things that can drag kids down, and I try to empower them to be the best people that they can be. Because a lot of times, people tell them that they can’t, and I want to tell them that they can.”

When asked about her legacy, how she wants to be remembered, Vonn remarked that it really isn’t up to her.

“It’s not really my place to tell people what my legacy is. I’m supposed to do the best job that I can and leave the best impact that I can, and then everyone else will talk about me as they will,” Vonn said. “I just hope that what I’ve done is not just on the mountain, but well off of it.”