Commentary

Lindsey Vonn back on the edge

Updated: December 21, 2013, 1:37 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

In some ways, American Lindsey Vonn is not that different from anyone in world-class Alpine skiing racing. Extremism and bone-snapping accidents are the norm in the sport. Everyone knows they'll suffer a bad fall sooner or later, and grisly surgery is always just a stuck ski edge or blown takeoff away.

[+] EnlargeLindsey Vonn
AP Photo/Luca BrunoLindsey Vonn needed to be airlifted after crashing in Austria during the world championships.

So for the best insight into why Vonn still looks like the toughest woman in sports right now, you have to go searching for more clues, such as her prediction on Dec. 8, just two days into her amazingly swift comeback from two ACL injuries and reconstructive knee surgery in the past 10 months, that she can win at the Sochi Olympics. (Women's alpine skiing starts Feb. 10.) Or take this exchange Vonn had with an interviewer hired by one of her sponsors earlier this fall.

Normally, such sit-downs produce puff pieces. But Vonn's Q&A about the high-speed crash in Austria Feb. 19 that left her with shredded ACL and MCL ligaments, plus a fractured tibial plateau, reads like an X-ray of her psyche.

That's especially true when you know that people who were on the course that day said Vonn could be heard yelling in pain even as she was still tumbling and pinwheeling down the slope in a spray of snow before mercifully coming to a stop. She had to be airlifted off the mountain by helicopter. It was estimated she was traveling more than 80 mph when she wiped out, a sight that left even her rivals cringing as it was played live on the large video screen at the bottom of the hill. 

The Red Bull Bulletin asked her about that moment

Q: How often do you think about the crash in Schladming [Austria] that almost ended your career?
Vonn: Not at all anymore.
Q: But you've watched it?
V: Yes, a few times on YouTube. I wanted to know if it looked the way it felt.
Q: Did it?
V: It looked exactly the way it felt. My right ski came to a stop in the soft snow, my lower leg twisted to the right, my body fell over my knee, which dislocated.
Q: How did you feel when you watched it?
V: I was pissed.


She was "pissed"? That's it? Not sick to her stomach? Not mentally traumatized as she re-lived the crash, knowing she'd have to get back in the starting hut someday? Not despairing that it could've been the end of so many dreams -- her defense of her 2010 Olympic title in the downhill, or her chase of Austrian skier Annemarie Moser-Pröll's all-time women's record of 62 World Cup victories that is now stalled at an ever-so-close 59 wins? No. None of that.

"Not to make too much of a myth out of her, but, you know … she's a blond-haired beautiful bad ass," laughs Steve Porino, the Universal Sports ski commentator who has known Vonn since they were both teenagers and he, too, was coached by her father as a kid. "Her default is to go too hard. Not pull back."

[+] EnlargeLindsey Vonn
AP Photo/Maris Can SlykeFour-time World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn was injured during training in November while preparing for her return to competition.

It took Vonn 202 days to recover from surgery and begin training on Chile's slopes at the end of August. The days of recovery put her smack between Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (195 days) and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (227 days). And Vonn's injury was complicated by the tibia fracture.

"It's partially crazy, but it's very impressive," U.S. teammate Leanne Smith told USA Today.

Such resiliency is not surprising to anyone who has followed Vonn's career as far back as her comeback from a terrible fall during training in the downhill at the 2006 Turin Olympics that left her in the hospital. She raced two days later although she could barely walk and still finished eighth, her skis rattling as she passed through the haunted part of the course where she'd fallen before.

Vonn has been assigned a different kind of courage since Turin, too, for being the first woman to publicly admit she was in a relationship with Tiger Woods after his sex scandal-related fall from grace.

(Even that plot twist in Vonn's life has a certain bad-ass tinge to it. The same February 2010 day that Woods held his carefully choreographed news conference during which he apologized for betraying his marriage, Vonn -- who wasn't involved with Woods at the time -- made news for tweaking him to reporters at the Vancouver Games. Time magazine reported that when Vonn was told that Woods' mom and friends hugged him after his solemn apology, Vonn cracked, "They're like, 'Yeah, you're awesome, you go have that sex.' " Then she suggested she'd like to host a "Saturday Night Live" bit that riffed on the whole thing with an equally solemn admission that she had a sex "problem" too.)

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods Lindsey Vonn
AP Photo/Jack DempseyTiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn announced their relationship in March.

They met in 2012, and in March, Woods and Vonn announced they were dating. Vonn's wipeout in Turin was the start of a string in which something always seems to happen to her around every world or Olympic championships.

In 2009, Vonn severed a tendon in her thumb and raced a slalom event five days later. Though, according to Porino, doctors told her if she hurt it again she could lose full function of the thumb.

In 2010, the massive pre-Games hype before the Vancouver Olympics centered for months around whether Vonn might sweep all five Alpine races -- an unheard-of feat akin to Michael Phelps' perfect gold medal run at the London Olympics. It didn't happen, but Vonn declared her Vancouver Games a success when she won the downhill and took a bronze medal in the Super G after suffering a bruised leg.

"The Shin Injury Heard 'Round the World," Porino jokes. "Lindsey has been given a hard time over the years by competitors who say that she dramatizes her injuries."

Does she? "That was certainly the case in Vancouver -- I was there," Porino adds.

In Sochi, the curiosity about whether Vonn can come back from the crash in Austria and yet another accident in training on Nov. 19 that left her with a new partial ACL tear in the same reconstructed right knee, will make her a must-see storyline of the Winter Games again.

But this time around, there's no questioning the legitimacy of the injuries or psychological hurdles Vonn still has to overcome.

She first has to safely navigate the two or perhaps three carefully picked tuneups she wants to get in before Sochi, starting with a downhill she's scheduled to race Saturday in Val d'Isere.

She's going to have to deal with the knee brace she still wears to protect her injured knee, because she's decided to put off getting it surgically repaired again until after the Games.

She's also going to have to ignore the pain and fear that the knee won't hold as it makes a turn at 75 mph as she flies downhill and might explode again.

"So this is different," Porino says, "because we have not seen her face the question before: Will fear come into it for her? And I don't know that answer. I don't think she's scared of the pain. I think she just wonders if physically she may break down."

Vonn did indeed make a rare concession at Lake Louise. She said she was "nervous" Dec. 6 when she stepped into the starting hut for her first comeback race, the downhill, and it showed: She finished a tentative 40th. "I was expecting a lot more," Vonn told reporters, "but that's just who I am."

[+] EnlargeLindsey Vonn
Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/AP PhotoLindsey Vonn, shown here at Lake Louise, continues to work her way up the standings as she continues her comeback.

In the next day's downhill run, she improved to 11th and then went on Sunday to a fifth place in the Super G event, just 0.85 seconds off the winning time.

So much for serious rust.

"But Lindsey's level is so much higher in downhill and Super G than the rest of the world, she doesn't need to be 100 percent -- she can be medal worthy at even 90 percent," Porino contends.

Vonn has been clear that there are still big things out there she burns to achieve in ski racing, and winning more Olympic medals is just one of them.

In addition to sitting just four wins away from having the women's career record for World Cup victories Vonn is tied for the most World Cup overall championships (four). She has been frank about wanting to reset both records so high no one ever breaks them again.

At 29, she also knows that she may have no more than one Olympics left after Sochi at best. And as she also admitted in Lake Louise, she's now balancing her yearning to race right now against the risk of making sure she doesn't damage her knee irreparably.

That crash in Austria was indeed different to her, all right.

"For the first time, I had an injury which was greater than my will," Vonn told her sponsor's site. "In the first three weeks, that was extremely hard to accept." Vonn has decided to get over it by attacking her rehab the way she attacks a mountain.

If she goes to Sochi and matches her two-medal haul from the last Olympics despite having raced so lightly, it should rank among her greatest accomplishments yet.

Her knee still isn't right. So it's all the more important that her mental state is. Knowing her history, it was no surprise -- no surprise at all, really -- that Vonn again sounded like the toughest woman in sports when she looked ahead to Val d'Isere this weekend, and Sochi beyond that, and said, "I know I can win again."

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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