“Things are definitely further along than I anticipated,” said Vonn, who became the first American woman to win gold in the Olympic downhill at the 2010 Vancouver Games, where she also claimed bronze in the super-G. “It’s a matter of getting up to 100 percent speed and being able to push it as if I were racing, and I haven’t quite done that yet. Waiting for those last steps before taking the plunge to racing again.”
Nonetheless, Vonn said competing at Soelden, less than four weeks away, was “definitely a possibility.”
“I have to get over there and see how I feel,” she said, speaking via videoconference from Ohio.
The video and audio link were inconsistent, with Vonn’s voice skipping in spots and only her face or portions of her face visible on a giant screen, making it impossible to characterize her everyday movements. But she repeatedly declared her right knee “100 percent” and professed full confidence the surgery and rehabilitation had worked.
That said, she conceded one “unknown” remains: what will happen when she subjects her reconstructed knee to the full-tilt demands of competition.
“It’s not that I don’t trust my knee or don’t feel 100 percent physically up to par,” Vonn said. “I just haven’t pushed it to that next level.”
A four-time World Cup overall champion, Vonn won an American-record 12 World Cup races in 2012 and claimed her record sixth consecutive world downhill title in March 2013. But the month before, she crashed in her opening race of the World Cup Championships in Schladming, Austria, tearing the two major ligaments of her right knee and breaking her tibia (shinbone). She underwent surgery five days later in Vail, Colo., ending her season.
For an athlete who started skiing at 2 and has competed internationally since age 9, the forced idleness that followed was difficult.
“The first weeks were probably the hardest, when I couldn’t really do anything,” Vonn said, recalling the frustration of not being able to get herself a cup of coffee while on crutches. But she credited her sister, her family and her boyfriend — the lone reference during the 20-minute interview to golfer Tiger Woods, who is competing this week in the Presidents Cup in Dublin, Ohio — with helping her through the difficult period of inactivity.
“I am someone who thrives on chaos,” Vonn said. “I need a lot going on. I need to be skiing and training.”
Vonn’s “dry-land” rehabilitation was carefully calibrated. She returned to snow Aug. 31, joining fellow members of the U.S. Ski team for a training session in Portillo, Chile. It amounted to a physical, psychological and emotional boost, Vonn said, noting she experienced no pain or swelling in the knee after a few days of routine drills.
“The team in general was very supportive,” Vonn added. “Everyone was happy that I was back in action. It was good to be part of the group again.”
Her teammate Leanne Smith, 26, who’s seeking her second Olympic berth as contender in downhill and super-G, said Wednesday the squad was buoyed by Vonn’s progress at the camp in Chile.
“To see the smile on her face after she came down every day was nice,” Smith said. “She’s just as passionate about skiing as anyone else. I saw her take some turns, and things looked great. We’re all proud of her and happy to have her back.”
The 2014 Sochi Games would be Vonn’s fourth Olympics. Reflecting on her 2002 Olympic debut in Salt Lake City, Vonn characterized herself as a wide-eyed 17-year-old “with zero expectation” of winning a medal.
When the women’s downhill is contested in Sochi on Feb. 12, she will be the event’s 29-year-old defending champion, with a bronze medal, to boot.
“Obviously I’m going to be very excited to compete because of my knee,” Vonn said. “But at the same time, I hope to improve upon what I did in Vancouver.”
Vonn said she’ll rejoin the World Cup circuit this fall with no more confidence that skiing’s international governing body has made athletes’ safety its top priority than she had before.
“I was hopeful after my injury that that would happen,” Vonn said. “But no — I’m not confident that safety is at the forefront of their mind. I hope that will eventually happen. I’m still waiting.”