Teen ski racers dreaming of becoming the next Lindsey Vonn received firsthand tips on how to do it from the Olympic downhill champion herself on Thursday.
Vonn gave her view on what it takes to be successful in a one-hour question and answer session with athletes aged 15-18 who are competing in the inaugural Winter Youth Olympics in Innsbruck.
"You sacrifice a lot, but you're gaining more," said the 27-year-old American, who was accompanied by Angela Ruggiero, a former member of the U.S. ice hockey team.
Vonn, who has won 47 World Cup races and competed in three Olympics, recalled how her youth in Minnesota was influenced by her strong determination to become a skiing superstar.
"I always wanted be an Olympian since I was 9 years old, and everybody thought I was insane," Vonn said. "Picabo Street was my role model. I met her when I was 9 and she was the reason I started working hard and that really pushed me to where I am now."
Vonn also cautioned the teenagers that putting in the work needed to reach the top of their sport will probably damage their social life, as it did with hers when she was younger.
"It's definitely hard when you are a professional athlete ... to have a personal life outside of your sport," she said. "Skiing has always been my No. 1 priority. I didn't really have too many friends growing up. ... But at the same time, I have been traveling to Europe since I was nine, I've been to New Zealand, to Chile, so many unique opportunities. I have friends in Minnesota who I grew up with, who have never been out of the state or out of the country."
Most of Vonn's friends today share her passion for skiing, though there is one exception.
"I have one friend who has actually no idea about skiing. She is awesome. I go over to her house and have dinner and we watch movies. That's awesome."
Vonn, who is one of the five ambassadors of the event, used her visit to the Youth Games to watch the first run of the boy's giant slalom and to have a brief chat with International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge.
When asked by a young girl about her best Olympic memories, Vonn singled out her debut at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, where she competed in slalom and super-combined but didn't win a medal.
"I was 17 and didn't know what to expect," she said. "In the Olympic village, I was getting autographs from other athletes, who asked me, how did you get in here? 'Well, I am an athlete as well but I still want your autograph.'"
Vonn also talked about the importance of learning from setbacks, recalling how she crashed in downhill training at the 2006 Turin Games.
"I first thought it was the worst thing in the world and I thought I was never going to ski again," she said. "But I came out of it and raced again two days later (in the super-G). Then I really realized how lucky I am to be able to do what I do. I learned from a negative experience. That was a turning point for me. I committed myself even more to the sport and started to work even harder."
That paid off in her third Olympics, the 2010 Vancouver Games, when she won her first gold medal.
"Before that downhill, it was actually the least nervous I had ever been," she said. "I felt like I had learned so much that year going up to that point. I felt like, this is it, I didn't question it and just trusted myself. That was weird because in other Olympics, I was so nervous and shaking and just didn't know what to do with myself."
With the help of the Youth Games — which Vonn never had a chance to compete in — young athletes may go through that learning curve a lot quicker, she said.
"This is really a unique chance to be able to be on a world stage and figure out how you can compete well in a high-pressure situation," Vonn said.