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.
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.
In an interview for her sponsor Red Bull, she once said: “My favorite part of ski racing is the speed. . . . The only thing I’m afraid of is failure. Skiing is a dangerous sport and I’m not in it to go slow. And if I fall I just get back up and keep going.”
It seems like Vonn is always banged up. There was her battering fall in a training run at the 2006 Turin Olympics that landed her in the hospital. She fought through a knee injury in 2007, a severe shin contusion and a broken finger at the Vancouver Games in 2010 and a concussion two years ago. In a statement shortly after she was hospitalized in Austria, she vowed to “work as hard as humanly possible” to be back in time for Sochi.
What is the psychology that allows Vonn to keep crashing so hard and getting back up? The simple answer is that she throws herself down the mountain because — when it doesn’t hurt — she loves how it feels.
Years ago on the eve of the Turin Games, when she was still a 21-year-old with most of her big race victories still ahead, I asked her about learning to manage physical responses under pressure. “It would be really interesting to take a blood test right in the starting gate,” she said enthusiastically. She was obviously interested in the biochemistry of stress, and her lack of tension as she chatted on the subject was striking.
A day later she cartwheeled on a practice run and bruised herself so badly she was hospitalized, yet got out of bed to ski anyway. She failed to medal, but you could tell that she was a young woman seeking total mastery of herself. And she achieved it — to the tune of 59 World Cup wins, with her sights now set on the all-time women’s record of 62, held by Annemarie Moser-Proell of Austria.
For those of us who are more easily hijacked by threat or anxiety, it’s hard to relate to Vonn. But if there is an insight we can gain from the way she skis, it’s that comfort and safety aren’t the only worthwhile states of being. Psychiatrists now know that anxiety can be good for us. When the heart beats faster and blood pressure rises and glucose surges in our bloodstream — when we’re challenged — it sharpens our senses and reactions. It teaches our body to perform better.
Vonn has attained what Goleman would call high emotional intelligence. In a way, her quest for speed is an addiction to learning. “When we’re under stress, the brain secretes hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that in the best scenario mobilize us to handle a short-term emergency,” he writes. When we learn “self-regulation,” to recover from stress arousal, “attention becomes nimble and focused again, our mind flexible, and our bodies relaxed. And a state of relaxed alertness is optimal for performance.”
All kinds of healthy byproducts come from meeting threat and challenge head-on. For example, heart and memory function improve. By dealing with it competently, we get a heightened sense of control and accomplishment. It’s literally stimulating.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we all need to drive Vail Pass without the brakes. But it does make Vonn easier to understand, and to admire.
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.