Lindsey Vonn speaks about her mental health journey at 2021 International Athletes' Forum

American Olympic alpine skiing champion reflected on the stresses she felt as an athlete, and how she is coping with her injury-forced retirement from sport.

By ZK Goh

Olympic alpine skiing champion Lindsey Vonn shared her personal mental health journey on Wednesday (26 May) in an International Athletes' Forum (IAF) panel, saying that having to deal with the expectation as an athlete is something "that people don't quite understand."

The American, who was one of almost 2000 athletes and Olympian representatives registered to take part in the 10th edition of the IAF, spoke about finding support for her mental health during her career as part of a panel discussing athlete well-being, safeguarding, and mental health.

"There's definitely an expectation on athletes in many different ways to perform under pressure, be resilient and be this superhero in all ways and we're definitely not that," she said.

"There's so much more that we have to deal with, that's difficult to deal with, that people don't quite understand."

Vonn, a four-time Olympian who won downhill gold at Vancouver 2010, said of opening up about her mental health during her career: "Telling my story was important to me. In doing so a lot of people felt a lot more comfortable sharing their own stories."

Finding and giving support

Vonn, who is the most successful female Alpine Ski World Cup racer ever with 82 race wins, said that as a young athlete coming through the ranks, she did not necessarily feel able to talk about her mental situation.

"I think for me, I wasn't really ready to share what I was going through," she said. "I think everyone has their own process and journey. I internalised a lot of my mental stuff and I used skiing as my outlet. 

"I think everyone kind of deals with it their own way but having the access to (support) is really important. Having the support there is very critical."

She also spoke of her retirement in 2019, with her final competitive appearance coming at that year's Alpine World Ski Championships.

"I had a hard time retiring, and I was kind of forced due to injury to retire," she admitted. "I think everyone processes retirement differently. 

"For a while I wanted nothing to do with skiing; I just needed a step back. I think now I really enjoy mentoring other athletes, I'm always in touch with a few that are racing and they come to me with different challenges they are facing. 

"I do enjoy helping others in that way. For me it's not so much (about) being involved in sport. It's kind of figuring out what comes next and it's still something I'm working on."

The IAF was held virtually for the first time, and Vonn was joined on the athlete mental health discussion by IOC Athletes Commission and IOC Mental Health Working Group member Abhinav Bindra (India, shooting), Malian athletes commission chair Kady Kanouté Tounkara (basketball), World Rowing athletes commission chair Frida Svensson (Sweden), and IOC Scientific Director Dr Richard Budgett (Great Britain, rowing).

Each of them shared their experiences and insight from their careers on the topic of athlete well-being, mental health, and safeguarding, while Bindra also shared the IOC's new Mental Health in Elite Athletes Toolkit.

Earlier, chair of the IOC Athletes Commission (AC) Kirsty Coventry opened the two-day IAF, which continues on Thursday.

"This year, the IOC AC celebrates its 40th anniversary," she said ahead of the IAF. "To mark this milestone, while taking advantage of the fact that the IAF will be held digitally, invitations have been extended to all AC members globally, in addition to the AC chairs.

"This gives the opportunity for more athlete representatives to have their voices heard and to discuss in greater depth the issues which matter to all of us."