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U.S. Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn dealing with injured shin that could keep her from competing

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010; D01

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- The tenor surrounding the entire U.S. Olympic team unexpectedly and abruptly changed Wednesday when skier Lindsey Vonn -- a favorite for multiple gold medals, the marquee athlete of the Vancouver Games -- revealed she has an eight-day-old injury that has completely undercut her preparations for the Olympics, potentially knocking out the Americans' best hope before the Games begin.

Vonn suffered a severe bruise on her right shin following a crash during training Feb. 2, and she said the injury has not healed as she had hoped. Even as doctors with the U.S. delegation described her as "responding positively to conservative treatment," Vonn characterized the pain as "excruciating" when she merely puts her ski on her foot and introduced the possibility that she might not be able to compete at all.

"It's been a very interesting ride," Vonn said, her voice occasionally halting. "Very emotional. Very scared. And not the positive way you want to be starting the Olympics."

Vonn is scheduled to compete in her first event, the super combined, on Sunday. But during a 30-minute news conference here Wednesday morning, the normally effervescent 25-year-old from Minnesota appeared crestfallen, outlining an Olympic plan that now contains as much doubt as hope.

"I'm sitting here today questioning whether I'll be able to ski," she said.

Vonn's camp, led by her husband Thomas and including officials from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, kept her status secret since the accident, which came during slalom training in Hinterreit, Austria, in hopes that it would not affect her performance when she arrives in Whistler, B.C., the resort town in the Canadian Rockies that will host the Alpine events.

But when Thomas Vonn had his wife try on her ski boot on Friday, and then again on Saturday, they saw no improvement.

"Last week, she was pretty sad, to be honest," Thomas Vonn said by phone Wednesday evening. "It was like every time she was trying it on, it was like a big blow to her Olympic dreams."

There were, though, some encouraging signs. When the Vonns tried on the boot on Monday, it still hurt, but it was slightly better. "I could see it in her face," Thomas Vonn said. "There was some hope."

Bill Sterrett, an orthopedic surgeon with the USSA who first worked with Vonn when she had a leg injury as a 13-year-old, saw Vonn for the first time since the injury Tuesday. He and Jim Moeller, the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief medical officer, said Vonn's approach of resting the injury appears to be helping.

"We'll make a decision every morning about the pain level that she's experiencing before allowing her to race," Sterrett said in a conference call with reporters.

Vonn's first opportunity to test her latest injury -- she has not been on skis since twisting and toppling in the crash, likely jamming the top of her boot into the muscle on the outside portion of her right shin -- will come Thursday morning during a scheduled training run. If the bruise has not improved, she could elect to skip that training session and try again Friday or Saturday. She must complete at least one training run to enter the super combined -- which includes both a downhill and slalom run -- on Sunday.

"Do I think she'll miss the whole Olympics? No, I don't," Thomas Vonn said. "But as far as whether she'll be able to do the training tomorrow or be ready for the super combined, I truly don't know."

Neither Vonn nor her doctors believe the injury is structural. Vonn, though, said she refused to have an X-ray in Austria because she didn't want to hear the results. She said her treatment also included wrapping the bruise in a curd cheese referred to in Austria as topfen, a tack that would not have been taken in the United States, Moeller said.

"You don't want to pull in any new experimental types of treatments with these athletes," Moeller said.

Vonn likened the latest mishap to her spectacular crash during downhill training prior to the 2006 Olympics, in which her legs splayed like a baby colt. Then, she was airlifted by helicopter to a Turin hospital, and she feared not only that her Olympics, but her career, might be over. Once she found out she had suffered only severe bruising of her back and pelvis, she pushed to compete, and placed an impressive eighth in the downhill two days later.

"You can never discount Lindsey and how tough she is," Sterrett said.

The most pessimistic person involved appeared to be Vonn herself. She said with a shin injury, "there's no way around the pain." The worst of the bruise is directly where the top of her boot meets her leg, a major pressure point as skiers push forward down the hill. The two-time World Cup overall champion drew a stark distinction between her situation in Turin and what she faces now.

"At that point, I just wanted to ski," she said. "I wasn't thinking about winning a medal. I just wanted to be a part of the Olympics and not give up."

Vonn's injury overshadowed all other developments for the American skiers Wednesday, a day that included the first training run for the men's downhill, which will open the Alpine competition Saturday. During the women's Alpine news conference, seven other athletes sat mostly idle as Vonn fielded question upon question.

"I wish that I was coming in here healthy and I had to deal with all the expectations with a healthy body," Vonn said. "But obviously, that's not the case, so I'm still going to do the best that I can and if I don't do well, so be it."

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