Lindsey Vonn raced last weekend at the Winter Olympics for the first time in eight years — and just one hour after paying tribute to her grandfather Don Kildow, who died in November and was “really the one that started skiing in our family.”
“When he passed, my family decided that we would scatter his ashes over the Rockies, where he spent so much time and loved skiing, and I asked my family if they would be okay if I scattered his ashes up here in South Korea,” Vonn tells PEOPLE.
“They thought it was an amazing idea,” she says, “so before my first race, I scattered them at the top and now a part of him will always be in South Korea where he served so much time.”
Vonn, 33, says she was alone while spreading Kildow’s ashes and had selected the spot to do it in advance.
“I had a really close relationship to my grandfather and it’s just something that I wanted to do for me, as his granddaughter, and in my own personal way to honor him,” she says.
Asked about Kildow at a news conference earlier this month, Vonn reportedly began to cry as she talked about him.
“I miss him so much,” she said. “He’s been such a big part of my life. And I really had hoped that he would be alive to see me . But I know he’s watching, and I know that he’s going to help me and I’m going to win for him.”
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Vonn tells PEOPLE she scattered the ashes “about an hour” before racing the women’s alpine Super-G on Feb. 17.
“It was a little bit tricky with the schedule, because the first time I was on the race hill was the day of the Super-G race, so it was hard to find a good time,” she says. “But I had picked out a spot: I had come to the alpine venue two years ago — I’m the ambassador for the Games, so in the summer I was there, and there’s a rock that has special significance to the Koreans at the top.”
“That’s where I chose to scatter his ashes,” she continues, “and to me that was very meaningful.”
The memorial moment carried with her into the competition as well.
“I think it gave me peace, peace of mind … a general feeling that he was with me,” she says. “I always feel like he’s with me since he passed — he’s here, he’s in the air, and that gave me a lot of really nice energy. I felt like I was more with him than before.”
Vonn tied for sixth in that race, less than three-tenths of a second away from the podium. She earned a bronze in her second competition, the downhill, where she won a gold at the 2010 Winter Games.
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She says this will be her fourth and final Olympics, given the years of injuries and physical damage she has overcome to continue to compete in ski racing. (She said she was physically unable to compete in Sochi in 2014 due.)
Along with her bronze in 2018 and her gold, Vonn won another Olympic bronze, in 2010.
“This one definitely means a lot to me, for a number of reasons, mostly because of my grandfather,” she tells PEOPLE, adding, “I was competing for him in these Olympics.”
“I cried a lot, I smiled a lot, I had a great time with my teammates, with my coaches, with my family,” she says, “and it was just so meaningful on so many levels.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.