Commentary

Vonn out, but U.S. hopes not lost

Updated: January 8, 2014, 10:16 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Lindsey Vonn might have come back too quickly and pushed too hard after she re-injured her knee in November. But that relentless approach is also why she's the most successful skier in American history. As well as the most colorful.

A four-time World Cup overall champion and the 2010 gold medalist in the Olympic downhill, Vonn went from learning to ski on a 300-foot hill next to a major interstate in Minnesota to becoming the biggest name in her sport. She also is a gold medalist when it comes to compelling storylines, capable of even pushing Bode Miller off the front page.

Vonn competed in her first Olympics at age 17 in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. She continued to progress and grabbed some attention in 2005 when she won a cow at a World Cup race and decided to keep it. Even when she didn't medal at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, she provided an amazing tale simply by competing after having crashed so badly in a training run that she needed to be airlifted off the mountain.

Heading into the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Vonn appeared in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue wearing a bikini. (Miller, fortunately, did not.) She made headlines again at a big pre-competition news conference in Vancouver, where she talked about treating her badly bruised shin with slices of Austrian cheese. Days later, she won the gold medal in downhill, the first American woman to do so in that event.

She won the World Cup overall title for the fourth time in 2012 -- no other American man or woman has won that many -- despite divorcing her husband and former coach, Thomas Vonn, that same season.

Vonn raised her World Cup wins total to 59 last season in between being hospitalized for an intestinal issue in November 2012 and her knee-wrecking crash at the world championships in February. (Boyfriend Tiger Woods reportedly had her flown home in a private jet after the crash.)

[+] EnlargeLindsey Vonn
Icon SMILindsey Vonn on her decision to not compete in Sochi: "I am devastated ... but the reality has sunk in that my knee is just too unstable to compete at this level."

Determined to compete in Sochi, Vonn battled hard to overcome tears to her right MCL and ACL, only to partially re-tear the ACL in November. Nonetheless, she returned to World Cup competition less than three weeks later on the slopes of Lake Louise, where she has been so successful (14 wins) that people refer to the annual competition as "Lake Lindsey."

Unfortunately, Vonn aggravated the knee last month and this time could not come back. She announced Tuesday that she will skip the Olympics and undergo surgery on the knee again. While Sochi is out, she still has her eyes set on next year's world championships in Vail, Colo.

So what will Americans have to look forward to at next month's Olympics now that we won't be receiving constant updates on Vonn's knee and whether Tiger is by her side in Sochi? Plenty, actually.

For one thing, there is Ted Ligety, who might finally receive the attention he so richly deserves. While all eyes were trained on Miller's failures at the 2006 Olympics, Ligety won the gold medal in the combined. He has also won last year's world championship in the combined, super-G and giant slalom, and has 19 World Cup victories overall.

Then there is Miller, who is returning to form after a year off due to his own knee injury. He finished second to Ligety in the giant slalom at last month's World Cup in Beaver Creek, Colo. Now 36, he will be competing in his fifth Olympics.

Julia Mancuso has medaled three times at the Olympics -- giant slalom gold in 2006 and two silvers in 2010.

And then there is teenager Mikaela Shiffrin, the reigning World Cup slalom champ. She is just 18, yet has won six World Cup races in the past year, including last weekend in Bormio, Italy, and is currently the season points leader in the slalom. And if that isn't enough to garner attention, she, like Vonn, has also won a large four-legged animal in World Cup competition -- a reindeer.

Those skiers, and perhaps others, will give us plenty to watch in Sochi, while crossing our fingers and wishing Vonn a strong return at next year's world championships. No matter how well she does, she probably will give people something to tweet about.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com