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In 'Rise,' skier Lindsey Vonn writes about what motivated her to get to the top

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Former ski champion Lindsey Vonn had her first go at the Olympics in 2002 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

LINDSEY VONN: I had dreamed about it since I was a kid, and my entire family was there watching. And it was a home Olympics. It's pretty rare to have a home Olympics, you know, in your career, let alone have it be your first Olympics at 17.

MARTINEZ: She writes about growing up on the slopes in Minnesota and training in Colorado in her new memoir, "Rise." After her Olympics debut, she told me that she felt kind of deflated because of what came next.

VONN: You dream of being an Olympian, you make it to your first Olympics, and you think this is the greatest thing ever. And, you know, it was very anti-climactic. I felt, you know, like I still hadn't proven myself to the team. And, you know, I was sent right back to lower level races as soon as the Olympics were over, which I was, you know, very disappointed about. And, you know, I just didn't feel like I had the support within the team at that time, and that really drove me and motivated me to - you know, to fight back and to kind of make my place and make my way on the team.

MARTINEZ: So let me get this straight. So you're doing well in the Olympics, but then you get sent down to lower level races. Now, a coach, Lindsey, might say, well, you know, she needed that. She needed that motivation. She needed that to be done to her to keep her hunger going.

VONN: Well, I mean, I had the best women's result of the entire Olympics. So, I mean, to be demoted from that point was - I mean, it's kind of crazy. But - and I will say that a lot of other athletes have had similar experiences, but that type of demotion ended their careers. You know, they never made it back. And whether that was because they, you know, never had the success or they were mentally beaten down, you know, I think that I've seen that happen many, many times. So I think I was lucky in the sense that, you know, I'm one of those people that's very, very driven by people saying that I can't do something, but not everyone is wired that way.

MARTINEZ: Well, that's the thing, then. See, I mean, 'cause I think a lot of people just see athletes as these machines, these machines that overcome all kinds of stresses and pressures and don't maybe think about all of the things that you have to deal with, like every other human being has to deal with that maybe isn't on a ski slope, winning an Olympic gold medal, right? I mean, you're a human being just like everybody else.

VONN: Yeah, definitely. And I think, again, for me, I am lucky that I'm wired that way in the sense that negativity, you know, fuels me. But most people - you know, it really has quite the opposite effect. And I know so many people that have so much talent but, you know, were never pushed in the right way or supported in the right way. And their careers crumbled, and they never made the success that they could have achieved because they just weren't understood or weren't supported.

MARTINEZ: And, you know, that leads into what probably for a lot of people, Lindsey, was the story of 2021 athletically, is how athletes put mental health at the forefront, as opposed to just, you know, blocking things out or deciding to just fight through things. Simone Biles was the biggest example. She was at the Olympics and pulled herself out because she got what she called a bout of the twisties, where she could not kind of figure out where she was in the air when she would land in her gymnastics routine. And obviously, that's very dangerous. A gymnast should know where they're going to land if they want to make it out, you know, without breaking a leg or something worse. In skiing, Lindsey, is there anything similar to what Simone Biles went through when it comes to what she had to overcome?

VONN: You know, I think it's definitely different when you're inverted in the air. I think there's a different component of, you know, spatial awareness that we don't necessarily deal with. I think there is an element of - you know, in downhill, you have to be incredibly fearless. You know, you're throwing yourself down a mountain at 85 miles an hour, and if you're not confident in what you're doing, it can be incredibly dangerous. I do know athletes that have dealt with different psychological obstacles coming back from injury, and I do know of, you know, athletes that have dealt with different anxieties due to pressure and, you know, being sick before races and just, you know, really feeling unwell. So that's definitely - there's a component to that, and I think that that is similar across all sports. But to the extent of the twisties, it's not necessarily similar in skiing.

MARTINEZ: You know, the Winter Olympics - we're coming up on the Winter Olympics in Beijing. What do you think of Mikaela Shiffrin's chances? I know she was recently quarantined in Europe after testing positive for COVID.

VONN: Oh, I'm not worried about Mikaela, you know, about the COVID. Everyone's been getting COVID on the tour, I've heard, so I think she's going to do exceptionally well, as she always has in the Olympic Games. And I think it's going to be interesting because the course is new for everyone. There wasn't - there were no test races. So I have no idea, you know, who that suits, 'cause some mountains obviously suit some skiers more than others. But Mikaela is an exceptional skier, and she's, I've no doubt, going to come away with many medals.

MARTINEZ: So in that situation, I mean, what do skiers do? You're almost going cold, literally, on this mountain, right?

VONN: Yeah, I mean, it's difficult, but I think everyone's in the same boat. You know, no one has skied the course.

MARTINEZ: And the ski events are in a couple of cities northwest of Beijing that usually only get about 2 inches of snow a year, right?

VONN: (Laughter).

MARTINEZ: The snow's going to be created artificially. I hear you smiling. I mean, is this something professional skiers are used to, competing on artificial snow?

VONN: I mean, yeah, we race on manmade snow all the time.

MARTINEZ: OK.

VONN: But I don't think I've ever been to a place that has annually 2 inches of snow. I think that's a first. But, you know, like, in Colorado, for example, early season training, everyone skis on manmade snow. That's just, unfortunately, with global warming, the way things are going with the sport.

MARTINEZ: Do skiers worry about climate change in the future about the sport? I mean, you need the snow to come down naturally - right? - to have a sport.

VONN: Absolutely. I mean, it's been so difficult the last few years to hold the entire World Cup schedule. A lot of the races that we have are a bit lower in altitude, and those races have been canceled more often than not. We've had to, you know, permanently replace some venues because they just simply don't get snow anymore. A lot of - I mean, if you look at Croatia, they just had a race a few days ago, and it was essentially dirt, besides one small strip of snow, and there were leaves blowing everywhere. It was incredible, and they ended up actually cancelling the men's race because it was just terrible conditions. So that's something that the ski racing community - we've all known about for a long time. And, I mean, the glaciers that I grew up skiing on in Austria and places like that are essentially gone. It's incredibly sad, and global warming is something that's very real for the world. And I feel like in the grand scheme of things, our sport doesn't really matter in that way, but we see it firsthand.

MARTINEZ: Lindsey Vonn's new memoir is called "Rise." Lindsey, thanks.

VONN: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUTCHER BROWN'S "FOR MY LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.