About a year before the start of the Sochi Olympics, it appeared that America’s most decorated skier might be on the shelf for those games.
After Lindsey Vonn took an awful tumble at a ski race in Austria on Tuesday, her return to the mountain was the furthest priority. As she was airlifted off the mountain to the hospital, you just hoped that she’d be OK. She will be, but it’s a long road back – Vonn tore both her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and her medial collateral ligament in the crash. Vonn also fractured her tibia. She’s out for the rest of the season, but her team has expressed confidence that she’ll be skiing in Sochi. “I can assure you that I will work as hard as humanly possible to be ready to represent my country next year in Sochi,” Vonn said in a statement.
Is this wishful thinking? Not at all. First off, Vonn has injured herself before, and come back even better. Type “Lindsey Vonn crash” into YouTube, and a spill from 2009 comes up first (she bruised an arm). At the Vancouver Olympics, she battled a shin injury and still won gold in the downhill, and bronze in the Super-G. A low-level ACL sprain, sustained in a training crash, ended her 2007 season early.
Dr. Jo Hannafin, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery, and USOC physician at the 2004 Athens Olympics, says that for most people, an ACL-tear would require about a year of recovery time before they resume normal activity. An elite athlete like Vonn, however, could be moving around in six months — though it would likely take her longer to return to Olympic form. Her MCL tear might not even require surgery, Hannafin says. The MCL stretches from the femur to the tibia: if the tear occurred closer to the femur, it could heal on its own.
Vonn’s knees may stiffen up in the post-rehab period, says Hannafin, and that can surely slow her down. But she’s betting on Vonn. “The issue with injury and surgery is that things are never perfect,” Hannafin says. “And there’s the psychological challenge. But I wouldn’t think that would have much of an effect on her.” Vonn was airlifted off a mountain after a terrible training crash at the Torino Olympics in 2006 — she competed in the downhill two days later and finished eighth. Vonn has 59 World Cup wins, and she was approaching the all-time women’s record, 62, held by Annemarie Moser-Proell of Austria.
“If anyone can do it, she can,” says Hannafin. “She’s really an astonishing athlete.”