When Lindsey Vonn was 9, she met Olympic ski racer Picabo Street at an autograph signing in a little ski shop in Minneapolis. “It was like meeting a super hero in real life,” the champion skier tells PEOPLE.
“Those two minutes changed my perspective and made me want to be an Olympian. I think little things can make a big impact and help change a life.”
Now Vonn, 32, who went on to win Olympic gold and more World Cup titles than any skier in history, is doing the same for girls she mentors through her namesake foundation, which launched last year.
As one of PEOPLE’s 25 Women Changing the World celebrated in this week’s issue, Vonn is committed to helping the next generation of women off the slopes.
“I want to empower young girls and inspire them in as many ways as we can,” she says. “We try and help them gain confidence and pursue dreams even when people tell them they can’t.”
Through the Lindsey Vonn Foundation, the athlete reaches girls in an array of ways, including through camps, scholarships, speaker series and educational programs.
“I want to give girls hope,” says Vonn, who prides herself on being hands-on with the foundation’s programs. “All girls can be inspired. Maybe you’re getting bullied in school, or you’re not confident, or you have a coach or a teacher who tells you you’re not good enough.
“We want to help change that path and help them believe in themselves so they see there’s another way. Some times it takes just a small gesture to help girls deal with their world better.”
Vonn has already been moved by the personal success stories. “I met one girl who had some pretty major depression issues and was hurting herself,” she says. “She went to our speaker series, and she’s not hurting herself anymore. She feels more confident. Those are the kinds of stories that I love hearing because we’re making a difference.”
For the Olympian, helping others is a responsibility she embraces – and plans to continue long after she’s hung up her skis.
She says, “While I want to be known as the greatest skier of all time, I also want my legacy to be about giving back as much as I can.”