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Lindsey Vonn has suffered decades of depression. This helps her get out of bed.

Vonn says she had a difficult time transitioning out of competitive life. And trying to keep her depression at bay without her biggest coping mechanism—skiing— has been an uphill battle.
Lindsey Vonn, former World Cup alpine ski racer on the U.S. Ski Team.
Lindsey Vonn, former World Cup alpine ski racer on the U.S. Ski Team.Yu Tsai

With her three Olympic medals and 82 World Cup wins—a women’s record—skiing legend Lindsey Vonn, 38, may have seemed to be at the top of her game throughout her storied 19-year career.

But there were days when Vonn simply couldn’t get out of bed.

While residing in Park City, Utah after competing in her first Winter Games in 2002, Vonn learned that her parents were getting divorced. “I was living away from home, and I didn't really have any resources. I didn't have much support. I was maybe going to the gym at like, 7 p.m. at night, staying up all night and not getting out of bed during the day,” she told Know Your Value.

When she stopped wanting to go to the gym, Vonn knew she needed help.

Feeling stuck, unmotivated, helpless and hopeless—and worrying that her Olympic ambitions may have played a part in her parents’ relationship troubles—Vonn sought treatment. She initially began taking prescribed medicine to pull her out of her dark mental state. Then, she eventually sought the help of a therapist.

“Admitting that I needed help was the hardest part,” she told Know Your Value, “and then once I did, it was made such a big difference.”

Going public

Vonn dove deep into her first bout with depression in her new book, “Rise: My Story.” She wrote: “In a way, it’s like you stop being yourself, and turn into a person you don’t recognize. You feel hopeless, kind of like you’re falling deeper and deeper into a black pit and you’re powerless to stop it.”

Vonn didn’t tell anyone about her diagnosis at first. Instead, she compartmentalized it. She said, “I didn't want people to think that I was weak.”

She decided to make her struggle public in 2012, after her divorce from ex-husband Thomas Vonn.

“I felt like there was a lot that I needed to unload, and I been carrying it for too long,” she said. “Once I did, it was a huge relief…. I realized that I wasn't the only person dealing with it. And I think it was a really important move for me in my life, just getting it off my shoulders.”

The hard transition out of competitive life

Through the personal highs and lows, Vonn always had skiing.

“To a large degree, skiing was a coping mechanism for me,” she recounted. “It was part of my safe space and it’s really the only thing that was stable in my life ... I struggled a lot, but I always found solace on the slopes.”

When Vonn retired from skiing in 2019 due to a series of injuries, which resulted in three surgeries in 10 months, she lost not only her career but her biggest depression-fighting tool. “I would definitely still be skiing if I physically could be. But, you know, it just got to the point where it's a question of whether I'll be walking when I'm 50,” Vonn said.

Image: Lindsey Vonn celebrates her bronze medal win at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championship in Are, Sweden, on Feb. 10, 2019.
Lindsey Vonn celebrates her bronze medal win at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championship in Are, Sweden, on Feb. 10, 2019.Christian Hartmann / Reuters file

Even though she knew her body was “broken beyond repair,” Vonn had a difficult time transitioning out of competitive life.

“I really struggled. It took me about a year to figure out what emotions I was even feeling and then another year to do therapy and really lean into all the things that I had kind of swept under the rug my whole life,” said Vonn. “So, it was a long journey. But I think right now, I'm the happiest I've ever been in my life.”

Keeping depression at bay

Vonn shared that her three dogs are the “number one thing” that helps her regulate her mental state.

She rescued Leo in 2014, and in some ways, he rescued her, as well. At the time, she had her second surgery in ten months and was missing the Olympics. But because she had Leo, she was forced to get out of bed and leave the house. Vonn said, “I could no longer hide under my covers, and I think that was a really, really important step for me.”

Vonn rescued her second dog, Bear, so that Leo would have a buddy, and then Lucy joined the pack in 2016, becoming Vonn’s companion when she traveled. She said, “I started to have a hard time being on the road by myself. Everyone thinks winning is so glamorous, but you come back to an empty hotel room, and you're away from your friends and your family and it's very isolating and can be very difficult. So Lucy helped me a lot.”

Journaling also helped pull Vonn out of dark times. She would write when she was feeling good and then reflect on those good times when she was feeling low. Her sisters added to her effort by creating an album of cheerful photos and notes that she could look through when recovering from injuries.

Vonn, who rarely gets enough restful sleep at night, embraced taking short naps as a way to reset her mental state. “There was so much going on that in the afternoons I just needed to kind of unplug. Sleeping was one of the few times I could just shut my brain off and recover,” she said.

Vonn has come a long way from her first bout with depression in 2002, and she hopes to continue destigmatizing mental health. “There's no reason to suffer in silence,” she said. “There's so many of us out there that are experiencing the same thing. You're definitely not alone.”