When Lindsey Vonn’s right knee gave out Dec. 21 in a race in Val d’Isere, France, she was left on the side of the course crying before she skied to the bottom of the hill, her Olympic future very much in doubt. Yet on Sunday, as the NFL regular season came to a thrilling conclusion, there was Vonn on the television, skiing confidently in an ad for apparel company Under Armour.
Vonn is the most successful American skier in history, and with that status comes the financial support only a few Olympians enjoy. Unlike so many of the other athletes destined for the Sochi Games, which begin Feb. 7, Vonn is a millionaire, sponsored by Under Armour, the energy drink Red Bull, consumer products company Procter & Gamble and a host of others. She is a celebrity, comfortable in a designer gown on the runway, complete with a paparazzi-worthy boyfriend more famous than she, Tiger Woods.
Her injuries prior to what would be her fourth Winter Games show both the frailty of the Olympic experience — perform at the scheduled time every fourth year or miss the quadrennial window — and Vonn’s established stardom.
“That’s always a catchy situation, a touchy situation, when you sign Olympic athletes well in advance of the actual Olympic Games,” said Matt Delzell, managing director of the Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based firm that handles sports marketing. “. . . You’re taking a risk, and you want to protect yourself in that situation. On the other hand, you want to be a good partner to these Olympic athletes. So it’s tricky.”
Just five weeks before the Opening Ceremonies, Vonn has suffered a pair of setbacks in her recovery from a devastating crash during the world championships last February. That accident left her with two torn ligaments in her right knee — the medial collateral and anterior cruciate — as well as a lateral tibial plateau fracture, a small broken bone in the same leg. Her focus since has been returning to form in time for Sochi. The Olympic downhill, in which a healthy Vonn would be a heavy favorite, is Feb. 12. The super-G, in which she could easily contend, is Feb. 15.
But Vonn’s planned return to competition, set for Thanksgiving weekend in Colorado, was delayed when she crashed during training the week before, suffering another torn ligament. She raced in Lake Louise, Alberta, the first week of December, and professed to be encouraged after finishing 40th in her first downhill race, 11th the following day in another downhill and a more confident fifth in a super-G to complete the weekend.
Yet the performance in Val d’Isere seemed to be disheartening. “Bummed about today,” she tweeted afterward. “Skiing with no ACL is hard!” Alex Hoedlmoser, the coach of the U.S. women’s ski team, told the Associated Press earlier this week at the World Cup stop in Lienz, Austria, “There is no decision yet if or where she is going to race ahead of the Olympics.”
Healthy, Vonn would be one of the focuses of the American public in the run-up to the Games. She not only has the allure of winning the downhill four years ago outside Vancouver, but she is one of history’s best skiers, a winner of 59 races on the World Cup circuit, just three short of the women’s record. She has an increasingly intriguing personal story: Moved from suburban Minneapolis to Vail, Colo., by her parents as a youngster, she then became estranged from her father at least in part because of her relationship with a former ski team member, Thomas Vonn. Thomas Vonn later became both her husband and coach, but they divorced in 2012. That led to a reconciliation with her father, who traveled with Lindsey to Scotland last summer to watch Woods in the British Open.
The appeal, both to the public and potential advertisers, is there.
“First of all, she looks gorgeous,” said Lesa Ukman, a founder of the consulting firm IEG and an expert in sponsorships. “That’s numbers one, two and three. Plus she is a gold medalist, the best-ever female ski racer. She has a great story line. She’s very media savvy. She has all the pieces that you need.”
Vonn, too, is conscious enough of her marketing position that she hasn’t changed her name from that of her ex-husband even though she competed under her maiden name of Kildow at both the 2002 and ’06 Olympics. (“Once you’ve got that brand, you’re not going to change it,” Ukman said.)
Because of Vonn’s established status, she should not be under pressure from her sponsors to merely appear in the Olympics, according to experts in sponsorships and agents who represent Olympic athletes. Take Vonn, compared with someone like American snowboarder Greg Bretz, who has established himself as a medal contender with strong results in a series of qualifying competitions.
“For a guy like that, if he doesn’t compete, it means so much,” said Peter Carlisle of the agency Octagon, at which he most prominently represents Michael Phelps. “If he does well in these Games, he may have some commercial opportunity, and that means everything.
“For someone like Lindsey, she’s already established herself. People know who she is and what she stands for, so it means less. It’s definitely a lost opportunity for her and the companies that work with her if she can’t compete, but there are other ways to leverage the association with her.”
Under Armour, which signed Vonn in 2006, said it made the decision to air commercials with Vonn over the final quarter of 2013, even with her health up in the air, because “she deserved to be in it,” said Matt Mirchin, the marketing executive vice president of brand and sports at Under Armour.
“She’s an iconic athlete,” Mirchin said. “She’s 29 years old, coming off a pretty severe injury. She takes so many risks when she skis. I don’t know whether she’s got another Olympics in her or not, but we expect her to be an Under Armour athlete the rest of her career.”
Whether that career includes the Sochi Olympics is, just more than a month out, a bit murky. There are three downhill races on the World Cup circuit in January. Her appearance in at least one of those would seem essential to Vonn the competitor. Vonn the brand, however, may be impervious.