In her memoir, “Rise: My Story,” Lindsey Vonn shares her journey from a small hill overlooking Interstate 35 in Minnesota to becoming the greatest female ski racer in World Cup history, with plenty of bumps, turns and crashes along the way. “Rise” is out today and available here. In this excerpt, Vonn details working with a psychologist to cope with life as a retired athlete …
Early in my retirement, I heard a lot of advice from people, both solicited and not, about how I should spend my time. Fellow athletes, family, and friends were all too happy to weigh in with everything from “Doing nothing is the best!” to “Keep on grinding.” But the more advice I heard, the only thing that became clear to me was that no one knew the answers.
I’ve heard it said that any big change, including a positive one, inevitably comes with its own grieving process, and in my experience, that definitely rings true. Over that first year in retirement, I traveled through all the stages of grief—denial, pain, anger, bargaining, depression, reconstruction, acceptance. In a way, though, it only seemed fitting, because it was like part of me had died. I needed to fully mourn the chapter that was closing before I could embrace whatever came next.
As I tried to find my footing, my old friend depression started to creep in. I could no longer compartmentalize my feelings and just focus on training, and most days, I woke up feeling blue. I resented skiing—both the athletes who could still compete and the imaginary storyline of what could have been. Without my playing field, my competitive side had nowhere to go. I desperately missed the mental cycle that athletes exist inside— preparation, hard work, feedback, performance. You win or lose, then you get back up and do it again. Without that singular focus, I felt aimless. I worried I would never find that same feeling again.
In a way, that was a good thing, because life forced my hand. Since I no longer had skiing as a crutch, I was left with no choice but to confront—and actually work through—my issues. In the fall of 2020, I started working with a new psychologist, Dr. Amando Gonzalez (I call him Dr. Mondo) who takes a much different approach to therapy than anything I’d encountered before. Our meeting was serendipitous. I had just told Karin that I wanted to find a new therapist, to help me with my struggles since retirement. I was looking for someone very specific—a person who understood sports and what this transition is like. The next day, one of Karin’s business associates told her about this platform he was working on, an app to get mental health out to a wider audience, in conjunction with a doctor who sounded exactly like what I’d described.
Dr. Mondo is a kind soul with a calming presence. It was clear from the moment I met him how much he genuinely cares about helping others. I’d never worked with a male therapist before, so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to open up to him, but I was happy to discover that he quickly came to feel almost like a big brother.
On our first call, we talked for over an hour. I learned that his framework mirrors an athlete’s approach—you assess your strengths and weaknesses, there are goals and check-ins to track your progress, and he even keeps score. A lot of times in traditional talk therapy, you skim the surface, by venting and sharing stories and patterns. That can feel good, and often it does help, but in my experience, it never solved the problem. Dr. Mondo practices something called brainspotting, a more focused method that helps you identify your unprocessed emotions and trauma and actually release them. If talk therapy is like the leaves of a tree, brainspotting is like its roots. At first I thought it sounded like hocus-pocus, but in practice, I’ve found that it’s not only fascinating, but has worked incredibly well.
Brainspotting is very immersive, so much so that at the beginning of our work together, Dr. Mondo actually came to my home for three days to oversee the process. The idea is that every time you experience emotional trauma, your body retains it, almost like a tally in your brain that won’t fade away until you fully work through it, by opening up your neurological pathways and clearing it away. Practically, it means you sit and actively focus on your stored traumas, sometimes for hours at a time. It can be very, very hard, and emotionally intense. Some days, I would feel so mentally drained, I would need to immediately sleep it off, but it really does work. On the other side, I’ve found it did allow me to fully process and move past some of those stored narratives.
“Injuries can be some of the most traumatic experiences, and people really hold on to them,” Dr. Mondo said, prompting me to talk more about my crashes.
I shook my head. “That’s not a thing that bothers me.”
“I think we should really talk about it,” he said. He wouldn’t let it go.
“You want to watch the videos?” I said. “Go for it. We can pull them up.”
We did. Eventually, he saw I was telling the truth.
“You’re the first person I’ve ever met where that isn’t the thing that bothers you!” he said. What can I say? That’s just the way I am.
For six months, Dr. Mondo came to my home once a month for three days, and we spoke a few times a week. Now, I’m on a maintenance program, where we talk a couple of times a month and I’ll see him every eight weeks or so. I can say without hesitation that this is the best I’ve ever felt.
I’ve been all over the spectrum, from thinking I didn’t need a therapist, to having a difficult time opening up to someone, to where I am today. Eventually, I came to realize that you won’t just wake up one day and discover that all your problems are gone. No one can do everything on their own—not even someone as independent and stubborn as I am. When it comes to mental health, I’ve found it’s good to be open minded. Mental health is your well-being. Therapy can be such a useful tool, a place to unpack who we are and how we can best live our lives—just as important as a dentist or a trainer when it comes to maintaining a baseline of health. We can all benefit from having an extra support system, because sometimes life is hard and it’s important to have someone you can talk to.
In the early days of retirement, everyone kept asking, “Why are you doing so much? Why are you working so hard? Just relax!” But through my work with Dr. Mondo, I’ve since discovered that being engaged in life—embracing the gym, leaning into my business projects, spending time with friends and family—is what brings me joy.
OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!Follow @nbcolympictalk