Snowflakes drift across the late winter Colorado sky, laying down a mattress of fresh powder on the slopes rising above Vail village and chasing the tourist ski season into March. Cars are parked along access roads because the garages are full, and skiers are carving turns down the south-facing home trails, racing the daylight for one last run. Indoors, guests walk through the lobby of an opulent resort, wearing flip-flops and thick terry-cloth robes, clutching glasses of white wine to drink in sprawling hot tubs. One of them is squeaking along on aluminum crutches; her right leg is wrapped in a knee brace, and she is looking for a couch.
There is a cruel beauty in this for Lindsey Vonn; she is surrounded by snow and mountains that dwarf the little Minnesota hill on which she learned the sport, yet she can't ski on them. Occasionally an empathetic but unaware guest will see her and commiserate in a way that robs Vonn of her modest celebrity: Oh, sweetie, did you take a fall? You'll be better soon. Thousands of miles away the World Cup tour that she has dominated for half a decade races on toward its season's finish in the Swiss Alps, yet she is long gone from the start lists. For now, at least, she has been replaced as her sport's star. The Olympics are less than a year away, and Vonn faces months of rehabilitation and recovery after tearing her ACL and MCL and suffering small fractures of her femur and tibia in a brutal crash on Feb. 5, during the Super G at the Alpine world championships in Schladming, Austria.
Here she flops sideways, enveloped in giant, pale green embroidered pillows, 5' 10" but looking like a shrunken Alice gone down the rabbit hole. It has been six years since she has been home at this time of the year, then because she suffered a partial tear of her right ACL (the same one that's now been replaced) while training slalom at the 2007 worlds in Sweden. It wasn't great then, and it's worse now. "Weird, and driving me nuts," says Vonn, 28. "There's all this snow, and I keep hearing [World Cup] results. And I'm stuck in my condo."
This is where the climb begins. In the present-day sports world of injury, medicine and rehab, the athlete disappears from TV screens on a flatbed cart (or in Vonn's case, dangling from a helicopter) and reemerges months later, fully rebuilt and armed with a narrative of determination and drive and how tough it was back at the start (see: Adrian Peterson). That's where Vonn is now: back at the start. It's a place where life moves slowly and victories entail simple achievements such as bending a wounded leg more than 30 degrees. Still, this slowdown might bring ancillary benefits.
In the 36 months since she won her first Olympic medals (gold in the downhill and bronze in the Super G in Vancouver), Vonn had—deep breath—won 28 World Cup races (moving her into second place alltime, behind Annemarie Moser-Proell of Austria) and two overall titles (for a total of four, also second to Moser-Proell); suffered a concussion and dangerously skied with its aftereffects at the 2011 worlds; ended her four-year marriage to Thomas Vonn, whom she had known for more than a decade and who coordinated much of her career; reconciled with her father, who had strongly disapproved of his daughter's relationship and marriage; embarrassingly paid more than $1.7 million in back taxes; revealed to People that she suffers from depression and takes medication for it; and missed chunks of the 2013 season after suffering a debilitating and still undiagnosed intestinal illness in November that left her sleeping in her condo bathroom for three days because, in her words, "S--- happens. Literally."
At the end of all of that, she has reportedly begun a relationship with Tiger Woods that has thrust Vonn into a world where her life is covered not just by SI and NBC, but also by TMZ. (Vonn steadfastly will not confirm the relationship. "I'd like to keep my personal life private," she said in Vail. "In reality, I know that's not possible. In the present, I'm trying to pretend it's possible." She is not humorless on this subject; asked if she noticed Rory McIlroy's withdrawal from the Honda Classic that day, she laughed and said, "Yes, I did.")
In a sense, her crash in Schladming not only stopped her season but also put the brakes on the runaway train that's been her life. "A lot of curveballs, a lot of drama," says Vonn. "Through everything, skiing has been my outlet. But maybe I have had too much stack up, and it's been go, go, go for the last few years. And so this was God's way of saying 'You need a break.' I don't want a break, but I will come back stronger."
Not long after the surgery, Vonn took her two Olympic medals out of their safety deposit box in Vail and brought them to her condo. She will have them mounted in a case in the basement workout room where much of her rehab and training will take place in the coming months. They are silent, shiny reminders of where she has been, and where she wishes to return.
On the morning of Feb. 5, Vonn awoke prepared to reestablish ownership of the speed races (downhill and Super G) on the women's tour by winning the world Super G title. After her stomach illness she had taken a full month off, from mid-December to mid-January, to regain her strength. In her absence (and that of Austrian slalom specialist Marlies Schild, also injured), Tina Maze of Slovenia had dominated the World Cup in historic fashion. But in the days before the worlds Vonn had done strong giant slalom and downhill training in Sudtirol, Italy, with the Norwegian men's team.
Skiers inspected the Super G course at 8 a.m. on race day, but shortly thereafter fog rolled in, delaying the scheduled 11 a.m. start repeatedly. Vonn texted her sister Laura, 22, who had been traveling with her in Europe, and told her they would meet for lunch at 1:30 because the race was likely to be postponed. Minutes later Vonn texted again and said the race was on. The first skier pushed out of the start house at 2:30 that afternoon.