The surgery fell into three parts. First, Sterett harvested a 10-inch piece of Vonn's hamstring to use as a new ACL. In football players such as Peterson, a graft from the patellar tendon is used, but ski racers are more inclined to develop patellar tendinitis, so the hamstring makes a better substitute. Then, through the same two-inch incision on the lower part of Vonn's knee, Sterett used three fishhooklike anchors to reattach the MCL, which had torn completely off her tibia. "In 95 percent of MCLs, they tear off the femur and heal on their own," says Sterett. "Lindsey's tore off the tibia because of [her] velocity. That alone puts her injury in the upper 5 percent of combined ACL-MCL injuries, in terms of severity."
(Vonn interjects, "See, I'm pushing boundaries even with my injuries.")
After the MCL was anchored, Sterett drilled a long tunnel from Vonn's tibia up through her femur (Vonn's leg was flexed at more than 90 degrees during the operation) and threaded the harvested hamstring into the opening, replacing the ravaged ACL, which, says Sterett, had exploded and looked like mop hairs. (When Vonn asked where the old ACL went, Sterett joked, "It's floating down the Eagle River.") The new ACL was anchored inside the tibia with a titanium screw and on the outside of the femur with a small rectangular titanium button that acts like a molly bolt, pushed through a hole in the bone until it pops out and flattens against the surface.
Lastly, Sterett smoothed out some damage to the articular cartilage beneath Vonn's kneecap. (There was no damage to her meniscus cartilage.) The small impaction fractures caused when the tibia slammed against the femur—"like a mortar and pestle," says Sterett—were left to heal on their own. The entire procedure took less than two hours. (When Sterett was interviewed by SI, it was late afternoon and he had done seven ACLs that day.)
Among the small benefits of Vonn's injury was that much of the Kildow family came to Vail for the operation: her parents, Alan and Linda (who have been divorced since 2003), and siblings Laura and Reed. Only sister Karin and brother Dylan were missing. "First time in a long time," says Laura of the large get-together. "It was nice."
Both parents have subtly been nudging Vonn to take back her former name, Lindsey Kildow, but she says that's not happening: "It's kind of a complicated name to say. I like Vonn. It sounds good. That's just me." This is an entirely separate issue from her marriage, which she is thankful to have left behind. "My mom put it like this," says Vonn. "If you put a frog in boiling water, he'll jump right out. If you put a frog in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, he will eventually boil to death. That's what my marriage was. I loved him once. But I wasn't happy anymore, and I'm much happier now."
Typically, Vonn has accelerated her rehab. She stopped nearly all pain medication two days after surgery because it made her feel strange. She insisted that a medicine port in her right hip be removed because she wanted to feel her atrophied muscles. She has the medals in her gym, but she also has targets etched in her head. She wants to make her annual off-season trip to Europe to work with Red Bull trainers Martin Hager and Patrick Rottenhofer. She wants to make Team USA speed training in Chile in September. Sterett says all of this is possible, though only the passing of months will enable it.
Where Vonn has been the designated superstar on the women's circuit since at least 2008, Maze has taken that role in 2013, with her record 2,254-point (as of Sunday) season, overall title and even a popular music single. Vonn says she will neither record a song of her own nor fixate on a single opponent. "I'm focused on doing everything I can to beat all of them," she says. "That's what I'm going to have to do to defend my gold medal."
So in the fading light of a snowy mountain day, a scenario is put to Vonn. Suppose the recovery takes a little longer than she would like, and she isn't ready to win again until 2015. Would that be acceptable? "Not acceptable," says Vonn, head down, shaking her blond mane vigorously. "I would not accept that. There is plenty of time between now and the Olympics. Plenty of time."