One year and one week before the women’s downhill at the Sochi Olympics, American champion Lindsey Vonn suffered debilitating injuries to her right leg in a violent crash during a race at the World Championships in Schladming, Austria, putting her out for the rest of this World Cup season and potentially complicating the defense of her Olympic title.
The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association announced Tuesday that Vonn suffered two torn ligaments in her right knee — the medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments — as well as a fractured lateral tibial plateau in the same knee after crashing in the super-G, skiing’s second-fastest discipline. Kyle Wilkens, the ski team’s medical director, said in a statement Vonn “is expected to return to racing” for the 2013-14 World Cup season and the 2014 Olympics, a timeline that would fit what experts say is normal recovery from such ligament tears.
The fractured tibial plateau, however, “adds a lot of unpredictability,” said Dr. Leon Popovitz, an orthopedist who is a co-founder of the New York Bone and Joint Specialists. But Dr. Tom Hackett of the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo., where Vonn makes her home, said even the broken bone should be something Vonn can overcome by the Olympics.
“The word fracture, it’s more of a semantic issue,” said Hackett, whose clinic regularly helps rehabilitate injured skiers. “What is really a fracture and what is a bone bruise, and what is the spectrum in between them? It’s very common to see that with this kind of injury, and it doesn’t necessarily affect the general recovery time.”
A lateral tibial plateau fracture is common in such cases in skiing, Popovitz said, because the ligament tears minimize the padding between two bones in the leg, the femur and the tibia, and the force of the impact after a jump can cause the bones to bang into each other. Such a fracture could be allowed to heal on its own if it is mild, or, in extreme cases, it could require reconstructive surgery involving screws.
“That’s the complicating factor,” Popovitz said.
Video of the crash is harrowing. The race at Schladming had been delayed for hours by fog and began in fading light at 2:30 p.m. local time. Vonn was the 19th racer out of the starting gate, and she skied well at the top of the course, taking a slight lead at the first interval over Slovenia’s Tina Maze, the best female skier during this World Cup season.
But as she came over a jump less than 50 seconds into her run, Vonn drifted slightly off-line. She landed hard on her right leg. Unable to maintain balance, she flipped over in the air, crashed through a gate and landed hard on her back, skidding down the hill, yelling out in pain the entire way before sliding to a stop and screaming some more.
“She jumped a little bit in the wrong direction and started to correct that a little bit in the air and put a lot of pressure on the outside ski exactly in the landing,” said Atle Skaardal, the International Ski Federation’s women’s race director, according to the Associated Press. “And she couldn’t hold the pressure.”
Skaardal added that “visibility was great, there were no problems.”
Vonn was taken to a hospital and released Tuesday afternoon. She will have surgery elsewhere. Maze won the race, with Switzerland’s Lara Gut taking silver and American Julia Mancuso, Vonn’s longtime rival, winning bronze.
Thus, the preamble to Vonn’s fourth Olympics is taking shape just more than a year before the Games begin. At 28, she is the most decorated American skier ever, and the 2014 Olympics, to be staged in Russia, serve as an opportunity to enhance that distinction. She became the face of the American team entering the Vancouver Games, prior to which she dealt with expectations that she might medal in five different disciplines, something akin to swimming’s Michael Phelps two years earlier in Beijing.
She won gold in the downhill in 2010 and added bronze in the super-G, becoming a star even outside of the skiing world. Still, her entire Olympics were colored by the badly bruised shin she suffered in training during the week leading up to the Games. This followed her dramatic Olympics four years earlier, when a spectacular crash in training for the downhill in San Sicario, Italy, warranted a helicopter trip to a hospital in the host city of Turin. Two days later, she somehow returned to the mountain and finished eighth in the downhill.
In skiing circles, though, Vonn’s legend has only grown since her last Olympics. She now has 59 World Cup race victories, a total surpassed by only one woman (Annemarie Moser-Proll of Austria, who had 62) and one man (Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden, who had 86). She won her fourth overall World Cup title in 2012, joining Moser-Proll as the only women to do so. She has won World Cup discipline championships in downhill the last five years, super-G the last four and combined the last three.