Erich Sailer still chuckles at the mere thought of this kid snowplowing down the mountain, skis spread out, a recipe to slow down, not speed up. Lindsey Kildow was Sailer's skiing pupil back then, back when she called the tiny bump in suburban Minneapolis known as Buck Hill her home mountain. The little girl was all of 6, but when Sailer watched her first competitive race, he turned to her father, Alan, another former student.
"Poor Alan," Sailer said, his accent thick with his native Austria. "You have a turtle."
That turtle is now 21, and she arrives in this enclave as one of the most accomplished and promising skiers on the U.S. Alpine team. She is coming off a victory in a World Cup downhill last weekend in Lake Louise, Canada -- the second straight year she has won that race. And though there is no downhill this weekend at the Aspen Winternational World Cup races, she will race in the Super-G -- a long, fast race with sweeping turns that is slightly more technical than the downhill -- on Friday and the slalom on Sunday, providing another chance to show her versatility, her promise, all the stuff that seemed so far away back on that little bump of Buck Hill with Sailer.
"He just knew what button to push in order to make me ski faster," Kildow said. "I think that's rare in coaches."
Kildow and fellow 21-year-old Julia Mancuso not only highlight the women on hand here this weekend, but they could represent the U.S.'s best chances to medal at the Winter Olympics in February in Turin, Italy. The two will be compared on and off the mountains from now through the Games. Kildow grew up so focused on racing that just skiing for the fun of it seems like a foreign concept. Mancuso, conversely, talks about ski racing as merely a means to propel herself from destination to destination, drinking in the surroundings, be they in Aspen or Austria.
"They grew up together," said Patrick Riml, the head coach of the U.S. women's Alpine team.
Kildow has done a significant amount of growing up over the last two years, as her rise to international prominence quickened. At age 11, after Sailer had pushed the right buttons and Kildow's natural competitiveness began to take over, her father identified in her the qualities he felt were necessary to be an elite racer. Alan Kildow was, himself, a national junior champion before a knee injury ended his career when he was 18. He, too, had been taught by Sailer, who cranks out international-caliber racers at an alarming rate. And eventually, they both saw Lindsey's strengths, and thought it would be better if the family moved to Vail, Colo., to take part in one of the best speed development programs in the nation.
"She had an exceptional -- I'm going to say 'affinity' for speed, and I'm not sure it's the right word," Alan said Thursday by phone. "She really had a sense of her skis in the snow. She was tremendous in the air, and she had that competitiveness that's hard to teach.
"She has the ability to handle the speed, not to be frightened by the speed. I've likened it in the past to a Formula One driver, an IndyCar driver. Some people have the ability to drive a car 180-200 mph and enjoy it. Other people are on the brakes at 75."
Once the affinity for speed took over, the focus set in, too.
"She was never loud," Sailer said Thursday by phone. "She was not a real showoff. She kept on plugging away. She was pushed by her father, and it worked. It surprised me. I did not know she would be that good."
Now, though, the pushing by her father is over. Though Kildow is on the brink of international stardom with the Olympics only two months away, she won't be bouncing ideas off Alan en route. The two now have a strained relationship, in part because Kildow lives with her boyfriend, former U.S. ski racer Thomas Vonn, who is nine years older than her. Alan and Lindsey's estrangement is serious enough that Kildow has said that she was rattled when her father unexpectedly appeared at last year's World Championships in Bormio, Italy. She finished fourth in both the downhill and the combined, just missing two medals.
"It's still in my mind," she said. "It's still stinging."
Alan Kildow said that she supports his daughter, the eldest of his five children, as she enters the world stage.
"Children leave home and they go off on their own," he said. "We'll be there cheering her on, probably not in person, but on TV. We'll be there watching. We're supportive all the way, and we're thrilled for her success."
Friday marks the next chance for her success. After this weekend, the women head to Europe for nine more stops before the Olympics. Kildow was a member of the team in 2002 at Salt Lake City, and though she had a solid sixth-place showing in the combined -- impressive for a 17-year-old -- her outlook now is completely different.
"This year, it's going to be totally different," she said. "I've got a lot of expectations on my plate, a lot of people wanting me to do well, and myself, especially, wanting to fulfill some childhood dreams."
Clearly, she is no longer a turtle. The next two months will determine if she becomes a hare.