Lindsey Vonn faces uphill climb in quest for Sochi

United States’ Lindsey Vonn is airlifted after crashing during the women’s super-G course, at the Alpine skiing world championships in Schladming, Austria, Tuesday, Feb.5, 2013. Lindsey Vonn has been helicoptered to hospital from the Alpine skiing world championships after crashing and apparently hurting her right knee in the super-G race. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

It’s a year out from the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, but that year may not be enough to alleviate the concerns of anyone keeping score with the U.S. Ski Team.

Ski-racing fans from around the globe, and particularly those monitoring the fortunes of the U.S. Ski Team, suffered a disheartening moment earlier this week when Lindsey Vonn, perhaps America’s best ski racer ever, crashed in the opening race of the super-G at the FIS Alpine Ski World Championships in Schladming, Austria.

It was one year and two days before the scheduled start of the Sochi Olympics.

In spite of Vonn’s post-crash pledge to be “as ready as humanly possible to represent my country” at the Sochi Olympics, one pauses at the thought of even this Wonder Woman being ready to repeat as the Olympic downhill champion.

Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote Friday the crash “looked like a fireball encased in ice, a blast of snow with a dim figure in the midst of flying white particles doing an unintentional cartwheel.

“It was followed by a blank pause on that white alp, and then a sound that at first might have been a lonely goatherd’s yodel-ey-ee-hoo, but turned out to be Vonn wailing over the destruction of her right knee.”

Reports from the U.S. team say the crash (don’t you dare call it a spill) happened when Vonn’s right ski caught in a bit of soft snow and stopped while she was moving downhill at an estimated 50 to 60 mph.

The result, according to team doctors, was torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments and a lateral fracture of the tibia.

Vonn has a reputation for her hard-charging style, something reflected in an interview for her sponsor Red Bull, where she said: “My favorite part of ski racing is the speed. ... The only thing I’m afraid of is failure. Skiing is a dangerous sport, and I’m not in it to go slow. And if I fall, I just get back up and keep going.”

Ski racers are familiar with the dangers of their sport, but as the U.S.‘s Ted Ligety remarked after winning the men’s super-G gold medal at Schladming, you whistle in the dark and don’t let it bother you.

“That’s a part of ski racing, and if you let it get to you, you have no chance in ski racing,” said Ligety, talking about Vonn’s accident. “You’re bummed out for her, but you just have to move on from that and know she’ll be back strong next year. As a ski racer, you can’t let that affect you.”

Vonn faces a year of difficult rehabilitation from a surgery that hadn’t taken place as of Friday, but if anyone has the will, spirit and drive to recover in time for an Olympic starting gate only 12 months away, it’s Linsdey Vonn.

The biggest concern isn’t her resilience — it’s the short calendar.

It took Picabo Street 14 months to recover from a crash in Vail to compete and win the super-G at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, wrote ski writer John Meyer of the Denver Post in a post-Vonn crash story.

Twelve months is “a tight time frame,” Street told Meyer. “It’s going to take everything she’s got. This is where she’s going to find out what she’s made of, and the rest of us are going to be along for the ride, cheering and hoping and praying.”

But it’s more than just the physical recovery.

As Jenkins wisely noted, “(W)hether Vonn can recover in time for the Olympics will depend on more than just her knee. Her head has to recover, too. How do you regain your confidence after a crash like that?”


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