More drama for oft-injured Vonn
Lindsey Vonn revealed she bruised her right shin in slalom training last week
No stranger to injuries, Vonn still plans to compete in the Vancouver Games
Vonn had come to Vancouver as the 2010 Games' version of Michael Phelps
WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Look at it this way: Ski racers are generally injured so often that half their careers are spent in some combination of pain-management and rehabilitation. And even by those standards Lindsey Vonn is an outlier, with a long and colorful medical history that has alternately compromised her career and elevated her personal mythology. She has a scar somewhere to match every title she's won.
So when I spoke to Vonn by cell phone Wednesday morning shortly after the Today Show telecast in which she revealed that a severe shin injury could potentially keep her out of the Olympics that begin this weekend, all I could say for starters was: "What are we going to do with you?"
To which Vonn said, "I don't know. What ARE we going to do with me?" Then she laughed, because at birth she received only a small dose of bad mood genes.
When Vonn was a blindingly fast -- but gawky -- teenager back in Minnesota, her friends figured she was just as likely to walk into a pillar in the lodge as win a gold medal, and often she did both on the same day. For the first four years of her World Cup career, she couldn't stay healthy because she kept crashing while applying her uncommon speed with meager conditioning. "She wants to kill the course, and then she winds up lying in the nets," says Martin Hager, the veteran Austrian ski coach who supervises Vonn's dry-land training for sponsor Red Bull, recalling Vonn's early professional career.
She crashed in training before the 2006 Olympics, injured her back and then tried to sneak out of the hospital before getting official clearance to compete. She slashed her thumb on a celebratory champagne bottle at the 2009 World Championships and then tried to bite off her tongue while winning a World Cup downhill race last December in at Lake Louise in Canada. And then in late December she badly bruised her left wrist in a nasty giant slalom crash, an injury that has limited her effectiveness in slalom ever since. (And oh, by the way, she also became the best U.S. women's skier in history, with 31 World Cup wins and two World Cup overall titles).
And here we are again, back on another Lindsey Watch. On Feb. 2, while training slalom in Hinterreit, Austria, Vonn crashed, injuring her right shin. "I got thrown out over the tips of my skis," said Vonn. "I hyperextended my legs and all the pressure wound up on my right shin." The resulting injury is an extreme version of what ski racers (and recreational skiers, as well) call "shin bang," which is soreness near where the top of the boot contacts the shin. That pressure point is arguably the most significant spot on the skier's body, because it's vital in applying pressure to the edges of the skis to turn and create speed.
Vonn's husband/coach Thomas, told me Wednesday night, "What she had was shin bang that was so severe it was just short of the point where it breaks the shinbone."
Vonn said Wednesday that this injury is worse than the others: "More painful," she said. "You need your shins to race. It's constant. A thumb, or even my back, you can deal with that pain." She has not skied since the injury occurred and only once did she try to put her foot in a boot. That was two days after the injury and she called it "excruciatingly painful."
Vonn did not dissolve in tears while discussing her injury, either with Matt Lauer, me or, later, a room full of international media. (Although I sensed Lauer was getting a little misty). She got that out of the way a week ago. "For the first two days after the injury, I wasn't emotionally stable at all," she said. "I was upset. I was scared. It's not the way I wanted go into an Olympics that I've been looking forward to, not just for four years, but for my whole life."
Vonn said during her press conference that it's possible she won't race at all. Yet when we talked before that, I got the sense that she's hopeful.
"We've tried having her put the boot on three times,'' said Thomas Vonn. "The first two went really badly. Just getting into the boot was difficult and as soon as shoe got in, there was just debilitating pain. The third time was Monday night. And as soon as Lindsey put her foot into the boot, I could see that something that had changed. It had gotten better. It was still painful, and she couldn't have skied that day. But it was getting better.''
Lindsey talked the same way when I spoke to her in the morning. "It's gotten a lot better,'' she said. "For two days, I couldn't even walk, then about five days ago I turned the corner a little bit. Now I can walk with no pain.''
As soon as the severity of the injury became apparent, Red Bull brought in a top therapist to work with Hager and Oliver Saringer, who attend to Vonn for most of the year. All three of them are working with doctors and therapists from the USA Ski Team, and that juxtaposition -- her sponsors' medical team with the U.S. medical team -- underscores the sometimes unusual relationship between elite athletes and the U.S. teams they represent only during infrequent international competition. Vonn said that she refused an X-ray in Austria when first injured.
"If she had been with us, we would have done X-rays, MRI,'' said Dr. Bill Sterrett, and orthopedic surgeon who works with the U.S. Ski team and who has known Vonn since she was 13 (and who also said that because of the location of Vonn's injury, any fracture is highly unlikely).