Vonn given gift from weather gods
Before her injury, Lindsey Vonn was a strong gold-medal candidate in five events
Vonn is in a race against time, trying to heal her shin before the Olympics
WHISTLER, British Columbia -- At just before noon on Thursday, Thomas Vonn was sitting in a mountainside media center talking to two reporters, waiting out a snow delay in what would be the first official Olympic training session for his wife, Lindsey. A voice crackled from Vonn's portable radio, the type that ski racing coaches wear to communicate from various points on and around the mountains.
Training cancelled. For today.
Vonn smiled broadly, balled up his right hand into a fist and dropped it slightly toward his lap. "Fist pump,'' he said, describing both the action and his emotions.
With the subtle gesture, Lindsey Vonn was informally placed on the Hermann Maier Plan for winning Olympic gold medals. While the fickle mountain weather -- dumping snow with fog on Thursday, predictions of rain and snow for the next three days -- threatened to throw the Olympic alpine schedule into chaos, the Vonns are like schoolchildren on a Snow Day.
Thomas: "We've all heard a lot about the Whistler weather. We welcome it. Every day will make a difference at this point.'' (When I talked to Thomas Wednesday night, he had said, "Nothing would make me happier than five days straight with pounding blizzards.''). Lindsey (through U.S. Ski Team press officer Doug Haney): "I'm always disappointed when a training run is cancelled. But in this situation, I definitely welcome the extra time to heal.''
Background: Lindsey Vonn rocked the Games early Wednesday morning when NBC's Today Show aired an interview in which she revealed that she had suffered a severe shin bruise while training slalom in Austria on Feb. 2, and that the injury could threaten her participation in the Games. (When I spoke with Vonn after the Today appearance, she was somewhat more optimistic, citing daily improvement in the injury). Her first event is the downhill-slalom, two-run combined, scheduled for Sunday. A downhill training run scheduled for Thursday was considered critical, as it would be Vonn's first time on snow since the injury.
And Thursday turned out to be a very good day. According to Thomas Vonn, on Wednesday night, Lindsey put her right foot into a Head racing ski boot for the fourth time since the injury. The first two had been disastrous, the third (on Monday night) had been better. On Wednesday night, said Thomas, "It was good enough to inspect.'' (Before downhill training runs and races, skiers slowly slide down the course, identifying key areas for the actual run, a process called course inspection). Said Thomas: "She thought she could side-slip down with me.''
In addition to therapy provided largely by Red Bull physiotherapist Oliver Saringer, Lindsey had begun taking oral anti-inflammatories -- Tylenol, Aleve and others -- for the first time since the crash.
Lindsey got up at 5:20 and ate breakfast at their condo near the race course. Thomas joined her a half-hour later. Before leaving for inspection, Saringer applied a topical numbing agent -- "like lidocaine,'' says Thomas. "It helped considerably.'' (Thomas also said significant care is being taken to ensure that Lindsey is not given or rubbed with a substance "that shows up on some banned list.'').
Together the Vonns went through inspection, slipping carefully down the course in racing gear covered by a loose, heavy layer of traditional winter clothing. "It felt good enough that she wanted to do a free run, to see if she could the [training] run,'' says Thomas. (More translation: A free run means free-skiing down some other part of the mountain, as a warm-up to the training run). Thomas told his wife that a free-run would be fine, but it had to be full-speed. "You have to go,'' he told her. "You have to try to ski normal. That [training] run is going to be tough. It's not going to be easy.'' Lindsey agreed and started down a trail near the downhill course.
"I followed behind her,'' says Thomas, a former U.S. Ski team member and 2002 Olympian. "She looked okay. She was obviously in pain. But she wasn't pulling out or stopping. I think all the painkillers and numbing helped quite a bit. That put a smile on my face. When we got to the bottom of the run, she was smiling, like, 'I think we can do this.''' The run was roughly 90 seconds long, and Vonn did only one before going back to the top of the hill for training.
Only two women did training runs before it was cancelled. Lucia Recchia of Italy went first and stood up on her skis when she hit a fog bank halfway down the course. Thirty minutes later, Stacey Cook of the U.S. crashed off a jump and rolled into the safety netting near the course. She was taken off the mountain by helicopter, but U.S. medical officials reported later that she was not seriously injured. An hour after her crash, training was cancelled.
Which brings us back to The Herminator. Maier arrived at the 1998 Nagano Olympics as a nascent force in alpine skiing, a virtually unbeatable racing machine. The speed events of downhill and Super-G (and the combined) took place in the mountains of Hakuba, two hours away from the host city. Like Whistler, Hakuba is relatively close to the ocean and at relatively low altitude, leaving it susceptible to uncertain weather. It rains, it snows, it gets foggy.
The men's downhill was scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 8. It was postponed for five, long days as massive storms (both rain and snow) settled in. (I remember sitting them in a tiny hotel room in the mountains, occasionally sprung for snowball fights and slogging runs). Finally, the downhill went off on Friday, Feb. 13, and Maier was injured in a spectacular crash.
The Super-G was scheduled for the very next day, as organizers compressed the schedule. But again there was rain. And then fog. The Super-G did not go off until Monday, and by then Maier had healed enough to race, and win. "I was always hopeful that the race would be later," Maier said at the time.
Now Lindsey Vonn is hopeful of the very same thing.