December 24, 2012 12:00 PM

Lindsey Vonn crossed the finish line after a blistering run at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver and collapsed with joy on the snow, her signature blonde ponytail bobbing under her helmet as she cried triumphant tears. She had just won gold in the alpine downhill-a first for an American woman. Close by, as always, was Thomas Vonn, her husband, who also served as her manager and coach, watching his wife of three years become the most decorated U.S. women’s ski racer in history. “This is the BEST day of my LIFE!!!!!!!!!” she wrote that afternoon on Facebook.

But now, as she heads into this winter’s World Cup season, she exclusively reveals to PEOPLE that life off the slopes wasn’t nearly as stellar as people thought. The smiling woman seen on Olympic podiums, on magazine covers and in lucrative endorsement deals, she says, was suffocating in a failing marriage and quietly battling depression.

“Everyone saw me on TV or read articles, and it was all about my great marriage, the white picket fence, all this success and my perfect life. But behind the scenes, it was a struggle,” says Vonn, now 28, over lunch (a latte and chopped salad) in L.A., where the Vail, Colo.-based champ was staying with a friend before flying to Austria to kick off the world racing circuit. She kept up the “no worries” illusion in public by winning more and by bottling her emotions, feeling, “I’m a successful skier; no one is going to want to hear my problems.”

So it was a shock when Vonn-who had been virtually inseparable from Thomas since they met in Park City, Utah, when she was 16 and he was a 25-year-old Olympic skier-announced last fall that they were divorcing. “Everyone knows marriage is tough. But it just wasn’t working, and it was making me miserable,” says Vonn. “Nothing bad happened, but there was just unhappiness. That’s the only way I can even describe it—unhappy. Divorce didn’t fit my cookie-cutter image, but I got to the point where I said, ‘I don’t care if I ever win another race; I just can’t live like this.'”

Remarkably, win she did-and big. Without Thomas by her side for the first time in a decade, she set new records: As of Dec. 8, she’s earned 57 career World Cup wins. “Nobody thinks that anybody going through personal turmoil can have the intense, incredible focus and poise that she has,” says longtime friend Alexandra Hyman. “What the world saw was how strong she is.”

But in fact Vonn’s inner strength had already been tested: For years she’d concealed that depression had all but brought her to her knees. “I just didn’t want to tell anybody,” says Vonn, whose symptoms first surfaced in her late teenage years, after her 2002 Olympics debut and amid her parents’ marital troubles and tensions with her father, a former junior ski champion and Vonn’s first coach. “Because of my stubbornness or shame or not wanting to admit something was wrong, I didn’t do anything about it.”

Instead, Vonn found comfort in her life’s one refuge: skiing. “I always channeled what I felt emotionally into skiing-my insecurities, my anger, my disappointment. Skiing was always my outlet, and it worked,” says Vonn, who was on skis at age 2½ and racing by 8. “When my parents were getting divorced, I just said to myself, ‘Go to sleep and tomorrow you can go skiing.’ I cried myself to sleep, and in the morning I was up on the mountain and I was good. When I ski, I’m happy.”

By 2008, though, less than a year into her marriage, even skiing couldn’t lift her spirits. “I couldn’t get out of bed. I felt hopeless, empty, like a zombie,” says Vonn, who notes that depression runs in her family. “I couldn’t even cry anymore.” At Thomas’s urging, she saw a doctor, who diagnosed depression and gave her a prescription. Within a month of taking an antidepressant, she says, “I was like a different person. It was crazy. I was excited to go outside again. I got lucky to find the right treatment right away.” She later added talk therapy and now uses Skype to see her therapist from the road.

Vonn told few people about the diagnosis, in part because of what she perceived as its “huge stigma.” Although her antidepressant is not on the World Anti-Doping Agency list of the sport’s prohibited drugs, she disclosed it to the agency and to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, she says, adding, “I would never, ever take anything illegal.”

While Thomas saw her through her treatment-for years, she says, her depression was “our little secret”-cracks in the relationship gradually surfaced. “I was going through a really hard time, and he was there for me,” she recalls. “But [eventually], I became miserable in the marriage.” Thomas did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story but has said elsewhere that he is sad about the divorce; neither has placed blame publicly.

Once on her own, Vonn mustered the courage to call her father, whose vehement disapproval of the couple’s nine-year age difference contributed to a six-year estrangement. “It was hard, really hard, but we talked it through,” she says. “I really missed him.” Her father, Alan Kildow, a lawyer who has since guided her through the divorce, is thrilled to have his daughter back. “It was very emotional,” says Kildow, whose conciliatory e-mails to Vonn had gone unanswered for years. “We picked up where we’d left off. It’s wonderful.”

Now, with winter racing season underway (and an eye on the 2014 Olympics), Vonn’s got a fresh game face on. Having made history in women’s skiing, she formally asked the sport’s ruling body to consider that she be allowed to compete against men in a World Cup downhill race in Lake Louise, Alta., so she could “test her limit.” On Nov. 4 her request was rejected by the International Ski Federation (she swept the women’s competition at the venue over the Dec. 2 weekend), but no doubt she’ll be looking for new challenges. “It’s a new chapter in my life,” says Vonn with a smile. “And I’m happy for the first time in a really long time.”

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