For a true sense of what happened to Lindsey Vonn, go to the freeze frame. In real time her crash in the super-G event at the Alpine skiing world championships in Schladming, Austria, was over in a millisecond — it looked like a fireball encased in ice, a blast of snow with a dim figure in the midst of flying white particles doing an unintentional cartwheel. It was followed by a blank pause on that white alp, and then a sound that at first might have been a lonely goatherd’s yodel-ey-ee-hoo, but turned out to be Vonn wailing over the destruction of her right knee.
Now turn to the still photos — and this is where you really begin to understand the jeopardy of Vonn’s skiing style. They show what we couldn’t see clearly on video: the gasp-inducing steepness of the Schladming run, and what happened to her right leg when a patch of soft snow jerked at her ski as she landed a long jump. The ski buried and stopped dead. The rest of Vonn kept moving downhill at 50 to 60 mph. The result was torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments and a lateral fracture of the tibia.
The U.S. Ski Team says Lindsey Vonn has torn ligaments in her right knee and broken a bone in a crash Tuesday at the world championships. She will have surgery and miss the rest of this season but may be back for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
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Vonn has always been a sleek, manipulative thriller who enjoys holding herself and her audience right on the carved edge of disaster. This time she crashed over that edge, and the result was the end of her season and, after undergoing surgery perhaps as early as this weekend in Vail, Colo., a year of rehabilitation with an uncertain prognosis that could keep her out of the Sochi Olympics next winter. Vonn and her U.S. teammates and associates predict she will be a fast healer — she is a workout fiend who spends seven hours at a time in the gym — but whether Vonn can recover in time for the Olympics will depend on more than just her knee. Her head has to recover, too. How do you regain your confidence after a crash like that?
It helps if you’re not easily scared. Vonn has a built-in advantage: She literally appears to handle fear and anxiety better than other people.
According to Outside Magazine, Vonn likes to show off by driving Vail Pass without braking. When the rest of us do something like that, we’re likely to suffer what “Emotional Intelligence” author Daniel Goleman terms “amygdala hijack,” a threat reaction in which an emotional-hormonal surge takes over our brain, bypassing the cortex where rationality and executive function reign. One of the things that can happen in an amygdala hijack is, you begin to scream.
What has made Vonn our greatest American skier, and one of the greatest skiers ever, is her ability to hijack herself right back, to override the stream of chemical messaging in her brain and stay relaxed on her skis even when she is taking risks. According to Outside, she continually terrified her junior coaches with the violence and severity of her crashes, only to pop back up because she had the ability to relax as she fell. This is what Vonn does. She has always directed the chassis that is her body down perilous slopes as fast as a car, only without the sheet metal, heedless of the fact that she has no more protection than a covering of windproof lycra.