Understand Your Finances
Lindsey Vonn on brand building and learning from her mistakes
Chase and UNINTERRUPTED partnered to create "Kneading Dough," a series of intimate and honest conversations with professional athletes about how they've navigated their unique financial and career pathways. We hope our readers are inspired, informed, and empowered to make the best financial decisions.
Don't call it a comeback— Lindsey Vonn, a three-time participant in the Olympic Games, was anxious for her most recent appearance at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where she won the bronze medal in the women's downhill.
After missing the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, because of a knee injury, Vonn, 33, had a renewed sense of purpose this time around. She already won three consecutive downhill races in World Cup competition to add to her super-G victory in December 2017, and with the most recent victory, she claimed a women's record-81st World Cup win.
There's no question about Vonn's greatness as an athlete, but the financial lessons she learned in childhood and early in her career positioned her to make a good living as a ski racer—not an easy feat considering she hails from a nation where skiing isn't a prime-time sport.
Making a plan
The oldest of five children, Vonn spent her early years in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and moved with her family to Vail, Colorado, when she began showing promise as a ski racer. Her father, Alan Kildow, was a junior ski racer who exposed all of his children to the sport, but he passed on more than just his love for skiing—he taught Lindsey early about setting goals for athletic and financial success.
"When I was making my plan to make the Olympics, I went through it with my dad and he said, 'If you can make the team and reach these and these goals in five to 10 years, you could potentially be making this much money,'" she says. "We had big, big goals. And that's where I give my dad a lot of credit, because I thought about that and have always thought about how I could transcend sport."
Need to be great to be profitable
When Vonn was 10, she met her idol, American gold medalist Picabo Street, and set a goal of reaching the Winter Games herself. Vonn also recognized that despite Street's success, she earned much of her money through sponsorships and endorsement deals, not by winning races.
"Getting paid through ski racing is very, very difficult," Vonn says "It's a very steep pyramid. If you're not in the top five or 10 in the world, you're struggling to not have to get a second job."
Vonn says ski racers get paid from the International Ski Federation, with the top 30 finishers winning monetary prizes. The winner could net $30,000, but the 30th-place finisher might get just $200. Then there's the dual penalty Vonn faces—taxes are deducted from her winnings in the host country, usually in Europe, and then she pays taxes again on her winnings in the United States.
"Really, the prize is almost nothing," she says.
Gender gap still an ongoing challenge
Unlike American professional sports, in which contract details are publicized, Vonn says that ski racing contracts are confidential. Vonn would like to fight that pay structure, but in the meantime, she believes that if more women ski racers can gain recognition through their athletic success, it could give them a bigger platform to fight for pay equity.
In the US, that usually means gold medals.
"In Europe, skiing is literally the number one sport," Vonn says. "I mean, we're prime time on every channel over there. And over here, people don't even know that I'm racing when it's not a year with the Olympics."
Learn from your mistakes
Although Vonn feels comfortable with her financial decisions, if she could advise others, she says—without elaborating—that she wouldn't have married at 22. She also works to spend and save wisely, despite the occasional splurge, and maintains good relationships with her sponsors.
In the ski-racing world, however, Vonn has more than made her long-term mark. She's second all-time in women's World Cup competition behind Sweden's Ingemar Stenmark, who won 86 World Cup races.
Building a brand helps
Vonn has managed to break through that barrier to become one of America's most recognizable athletes. She followed Street's example and her father's advice and established relationships with notable brands such as Under Armour, Red Bull and Rolex, when she began achieving career success.
"I look at companies that fit my personality and I want to have long-term relationships with them," she says. "For me, personally, Rolex was the most gratifying sponsor to have. I wasn't necessarily getting paid a lot, but the name represented something so much more. With Under Armour, I'm the longest standing athlete, currently, and it's been like 11 years now."
Shannon Shelton Miller is a Chase News contributor. Her work has appeared in the Detroit Free Press, the Orlando Sentinel, and the Huffington Post, among other media outlets.