LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) - After completing her third race in three days back in December - a trio of tests, 10 months after reconstructive knee surgery and two months before the Sochi Olympics - Lindsey Vonn declared herself ready to go.
Ready to win, actually.
“I’m overcoming a lot and it shows me, mentally, what I’m capable of. I’ve obviously experienced a lot of injuries in my career, but this is definitely at the top of the list,” Vonn said then, raising her hand up near eye level. “Skiing with not very much ACL left - it’s pretty hard-core. … I’m not going to give up, and I’m going to be in Sochi, fighting for my medal.”
Four weeks later, though, having re-injured her right knee, two-time Olympic medalist Vonn called off her bid to be ready for these Winter Games, reminding everyone what so many ski racers know so well: Theirs is an unforgiving sport. An Associated Press review of the careers of the top 50 in the overall World Cup standings on Jan. 12 - the 25 men and 25 women most likely to earn an Alpine medal in Russia, where the first race is scheduled for Feb. 9 - shows that more than half have missed significant time because of a skiing-related injury.
“She understands that, at some point in time, you’re going to have a serious injury,” said Vonn’s father, Alan Kildow. “It just happened to be before an Olympic year.”
Of the 27 athletes the AP found to have experienced major health issues due to ski accidents, 18 damaged knees, usually tearing a ligament, as happened to Vonn.
There’s a sense of inevitability about it among the elite-level ski racers and coaches, as if it’s a cost of doing business, essentially. If a big injury hasn’t happened yet, the thinking goes, it will.
Each time there’s an injury in a race or training, there are two parts of the comeback: the physical and the mental.
“We see a lot of shooting stars come in young, and I’m always the one to say: ‘Let’s wait until after the injury.’ I know it sounds bad, but that’s the way it is,” said Hugues Ansermoz, the coach of Canada’s women’s Alpine team. “There have been a few people that disappear after injury; they can never come back. And this is not good, but it’s part of the game. The champions, the real champions, they all come back stronger.”
Ansermoz, previously Switzerland’s coach, pointed to someone from that country, Lara Gut. She won two silvers as a teenager at the 2009 world championships and was expected to shine at the Vancouver Games - until, that is, she dislocated her right hip in a training crash in September 2009, and sat out the Olympics.
Now Gut is back at her best, winning four World Cup races from late October to early December.
“After my injury,” said Gut, still only 22, “I started building my body again and my skills again.”
The International Ski Federation, known as FIS, makes rules changes here and there in the name of increased safety, such as tweaking specifications for the skis themselves. Helmets that are supposed to better shield heads in falls were introduced this season. More and more protective netting abuts courses.
“There’s always room for improvement, for sure, but it’s also necessary to say we’re at a very, very high level now in terms of what’s possible,” said Atle Skaardal, the women’s race director for FIS. “Everything is improving the whole time. But we also still kind of need to accept that as long as we’re in a sport with high speed … you can’t eliminate everything.”
In other words: If you throw your body down the slippery side of a mountain at a velocity barred for vehicles on most roads in the United States, you’re bound to fall at some point. And if you fall, you’re bound to twist a leg or land on an arm or do damage in some way.