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Maze started No. 18 and assumed the lead. The next skier was Vonn. After a fast start she hit the second timing interval at 42.50 seconds, .12 behind Maze. A second later, traveling at 70 mph, Vonn swept through a wide, right-footed turn and then sailed into the air off a small jump. What happened in the ensuing seconds will be recounted endlessly in the coming months.
In recalling the crash, Vonn says the snow, appropriately icy early in the morning, had broken down badly on the course, making for an uneven racing surface. "But I thought I was skiing it pretty well," she says. "I came into the jump on exactly the line that we inspected." (Maze was quoted after the race as saying that Vonn took a "too-direct line.") Vonn says, "I always anticipate going further [off jumps] than the other women. If I had to go back and change [the line], I wouldn't. I just flew too far. When I was in the air, I looked to where I was going to land and I could see that snow was broken up and soft, almost like it was wet. I thought, Oh, s---." Knowing that she had to make a sharp left turn immediately after landing, Vonn put pressure on her right leg as she dropped to the snow. "Then when I landed," Vonn says, "my right ski literally stopped."
On the race video her right knee can be seen bending inward sharply. Her momentum stalled, Vonn went tumbling down the slope. She felt an odd sensation, "like my whole body went over the tips of my skis," Vonn says. The pain came just afterward. She could be heard screaming even before coming to a stop.
Vonn had always been told that an ACL tear is accompanied by a pop, and she heard no pop. But the feeling of her knee coming unhinged left her thinking instantly that her leg was broken, perhaps badly. Lying in the snow in her Lycra racing suit, she thought immediately about Bryon Friedman, a promising former U.S. racer who broke his right tibia and fibula (and nearly lost his leg) in 2005 at age 24 in a downhill training crash. Friedman, now 32, underwent eight surgeries in the ensuing months and never returned to top form. "When I came to a stop on the hill that day," says Friedman, now a singer-songwriter and ski equipment entrepreneur, "I knew deep down, this could be it for me."
Vonn felt the same way. "I thought about Bryon," she says, "because that was the worst-possible scenario." Minutes later she was loaded, crying, onto a hard plastic sled and lifted, with two attendants, into the air for a 10-minute ride to a nearby hospital. It was the third time in her career that she had been given this carnival ride. "All you can see is the sky, and all I could feel was pain," says Vonn. "Not a fun experience."
While U.S. women's ski team doctor Bill Sterett, an orthopedic surgeon, scrambled for transportation to the hospital, Austrian doctors examined Vonn's leg and swiftly determined that she had torn her ACL and MCL. An MRI and X-rays confirmed the diagnosis and also revealed a plateau fracture affecting both the tibia (shin bone) and femur (thigh bone). It was bad news, but not the worst-case scenario Vonn had feared. Laura found her sister alone in an examining area. "She was a mess," says Laura. "We both just started crying."
Sterett has viewed the crash video numerous times. "Lindsey's right ski stopped, but her body was still going forward and turning left," he says. "So the MCL went first, which allowed the knee to begin dislocating, and then she tore the ACL, which allowed the knee to completely dislocate." As the knee rebounded, Vonn's femur slammed against her tibia, creating nondisplaced fractures on the surface of both bones. All of this, says Sterett, took place, in "much less than a second." By the time Vonn's leg is seen bending inward on the race video, all of the damage is done.
Vonn spent two full days in Austria after the crash. Her sister dialed up family members and friends and put them on speakerphone for Vonn. U.S. teammates, several of whom have had ACL surgery, visited Vonn's bus. Officials from Red Bull, the Austrian company that is one of Vonn's primary sponsors, pushed for surgery in Innsbruck. Sterett, who has treated Vonn since she was 14, pushed to bring her home. Alan Kildow, Vonn's father, encouraged her to speak to Dr. James Andrews, which she did. The noted orthopedic surgeon assured Vonn that he would do exactly what Sterett planned, and Vonn settled on Sterett.
She flew home on a jet that was widely reported to be owned by Woods, which Vonn also will not confirm. On the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 10, she checked into Vail Valley Surgery Center, where hers was to be the only procedure performed that day.
Sterett, 52, first worked on Vonn when she suffered a tibial plateau fracture at age 14. He has since treated her multiple times for various injuries. On a recent afternoon Vonn lay on a portable table in her condo as Sterett described the reconstruction of her knee, pointing to various spots on her leg as if it were an artist's canvas.