Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn loved her grandfather. I mean, we all probably love our grandparents... but for Vonn it was one of the most important relationships in her life. So much so, in fact, that Vonn gave an emotional interview about her grandfather on Friday during the 2018 Winter Olympics. Despite all of the physical trials Vonn has suffered through (her blown-out knee that prevented her from competing at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, her shattered ankle and humerus, a severed tendon in her hand), it was losing her grandfather that brought the tough athlete to tears.
The two-time Olympic medal winner (one gold and one bronze) lost her beloved grandfather, Korean War veteran Don Kildow, in November. It was her grandfather who introduced her to skiing, having founded the local ski club where he lived in Milton, Wisconsin and where Vonn would spend hours perfecting the sport that would eventually make her a four-time World Cup champion. It was also Kildow who instilled a solid work ethic in his granddaughter, and Vonn has often spoken of him as one of her greatest inspirations. She told CNN in a recent interview, “If it weren’t for my grandfather i wouldn’t be racing. My grandfather taught my father how to ski and I think about him all the time, especially when I’m racing. I feel closer to him when I’m skiing."
When Kildow died in November just weeks before the 2017-2018 World Cup downhill skiing season began, Vonn struggled to come to terms with his passing. She shared a heartfelt letter she wrote to her grandfather on her Instagram page, giving a sense of just how much he truly meant to her:
Dear Grandpa,I still can’t believe you’re gone. No words can describe how much you mean to me and how much i love you. I wish i had more time with you but i will cherish the memories we had. You taught me to be tough, to be kind, and above all, to ski fast. Now, every time i ski down the mountain I know you’ll be there with me. I’m proud to be your granddaughter and I will think of you always. I will race for you in Korea and I will try as hard as I can to win for you. Please look out for me.I love you Grandpa. Lindsey
And it doesn't look as though time has lessened her admiration for her grandfather; during an interview in PyeongChang on Friday with NBC, Vonn had a hard time keeping her composure as she talked about Kildow:
Vonn is prepared to compete in her fourth (and probably final) Olympics in three categories, downhill, super-giant slalom and combined events. Because she had a grandfather who believed in her, invested in her, loved her, and supported her. And now it's like she has a talisman around her neck, protecting her and buoying her when things get tough.
This is what I think grandparents can do for children; invest their singular type of love in them. A recent study by the University of Oxford found that children who enjoyed healthy, involved relationships with their grandparents tended to have fewer emotional and behavioral problems. Perhaps that old adage about it taking the village to raise the child is more accurate than we tend to realize.
Vonn isn't the only celebrity to attribute her success to her grandparent; Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Carol Burnett, and even President Barack Obama were at least partially raised and shaped by their grandparents. In fact, when President Obama's grandmother died just before he was elected to office, he had this to say about her in his 2008 victory speech:
And while she’s no longer with us, I know my grandmother is watching, along with the family that made me who I am. I miss them tonight, and know that my debt to them is beyond measure.
It's easy enough to look at grandparents as free babysitters and sweet spoilers of our kids. But perhaps we owe it to them, our children, and ourselves to see them as more. See them as people who can inspire and educate and lead by example.
And maybe even help steer them on the path to the Olympics... you just never know.