WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Look at it this way: Ski racers are generally injured so often that half their careers are spent in some combination of pain-management and rehabilitation. And even by those standards Lindsey Vonn is an outlier, with a long and colorful medical history that has alternately compromised her career and elevated her personal mythology. She has a scar somewhere to match every title she's won.
So when I spoke to Vonn by cell phone Wednesday morning shortly after the Today Show telecast in which she revealed that a severe shin injury could potentially keep her out of the Olympics that begin this weekend, all I could say for starters was: "What are we going to do with you?"
To which Vonn said, "I don't know. What ARE we going to do with me?" Then she laughed, because at birth she received only a small dose of bad mood genes.
When Vonn was a blindingly fast -- but gawky -- teenager back in Minnesota, her friends figured she was just as likely to walk into a pillar in the lodge as win a gold medal, and often she did both on the same day. For the first four years of her World Cup career, she couldn't stay healthy because she kept crashing while applying her uncommon speed with meager conditioning. "She wants to kill the course, and then she winds up lying in the nets," says Martin Hager, the veteran Austrian ski coach who supervises Vonn's dry-land training for sponsor Red Bull, recalling Vonn's early professional career.
She crashed in training before the 2006 Olympics, injured her back and then tried to sneak out of the hospital before getting official clearance to compete. She slashed her thumb on a celebratory champagne bottle at the 2009 World Championships and then tried to bite off her tongue while winning a World Cup downhill race last December in at Lake Louise in Canada. And then in late December she badly bruised her left wrist in a nasty giant slalom crash, an injury that has limited her effectiveness in slalom ever since. (And oh, by the way, she also became the best U.S. women's skier in history, with 31 World Cup wins and two World Cup overall titles).
And here we are again, back on another Lindsey Watch. On Feb. 2, while training slalom in Hinterreit, Austria, Vonn crashed, injuring her right shin. "I got thrown out over the tips of my skis," said Vonn. "I hyperextended my legs and all the pressure wound up on my right shin." The resulting injury is an extreme version of what ski racers (and recreational skiers, as well) call "shin bang," which is soreness near where the top of the boot contacts the shin. That pressure point is arguably the most significant spot on the skier's body, because it's vital in applying pressure to the edges of the skis to turn and create speed.
Vonn's husband/coach Thomas, told me Wednesday night, "What she had was shin bang that was so severe it was just short of the point where it breaks the shinbone."
Vonn said Wednesday that this injury is worse than the others: "More painful," she said. "You need your shins to race. It's constant. A thumb, or even my back, you can deal with that pain." She has not skied since the injury occurred and only once did she try to put her foot in a boot. That was two days after the injury and she called it "excruciatingly painful."
Vonn did not dissolve in tears while discussing her injury, either with Matt Lauer, me or, later, a room full of international media. (Although I sensed Lauer was getting a little misty). She got that out of the way a week ago. "For the first two days after the injury, I wasn't emotionally stable at all," she said. "I was upset. I was scared. It's not the way I wanted go into an Olympics that I've been looking forward to, not just for four years, but for my whole life."
Vonn said during her press conference that it's possible she won't race at all. Yet when we talked before that, I got the sense that she's hopeful.
"We've tried having her put the boot on three times,'' said Thomas Vonn. "The first two went really badly. Just getting into the boot was difficult and as soon as shoe got in, there was just debilitating pain. The third time was Monday night. And as soon as Lindsey put her foot into the boot, I could see that something that had changed. It had gotten better. It was still painful, and she couldn't have skied that day. But it was getting better.''
Lindsey talked the same way when I spoke to her in the morning. "It's gotten a lot better,'' she said. "For two days, I couldn't even walk, then about five days ago I turned the corner a little bit. Now I can walk with no pain.''
As soon as the severity of the injury became apparent, Red Bull brought in a top therapist to work with Hager and Oliver Saringer, who attend to Vonn for most of the year. All three of them are working with doctors and therapists from the USA Ski Team, and that juxtaposition -- her sponsors' medical team with the U.S. medical team -- underscores the sometimes unusual relationship between elite athletes and the U.S. teams they represent only during infrequent international competition. Vonn said that she refused an X-ray in Austria when first injured.
"If she had been with us, we would have done X-rays, MRI,'' said Dr. Bill Sterrett, and orthopedic surgeon who works with the U.S. Ski team and who has known Vonn since she was 13 (and who also said that because of the location of Vonn's injury, any fracture is highly unlikely).
Yet Vonn has terrific faith in Saringer and Hager. I saw them together last summer in Austria and they share a deep trust and friendship. As I described it in a story I wrote on Vonn in Sports Illustrated, they are like her big brothers. The vast majority of Vonn's yearlong treatment and training is supervised by professionals outside the U.S. program.
"Once we got to Whistler, Dr. Sterret evaluated Lindsey and he has been involved since then,'' said Thomas Vonn. "Oliver is managing her minute-to-minute care.''
Saringer's care is not exactly what you would call mainstream. `"Oliver has been rubbing all kinds of things on my leg to reduce the inflammation,'' says Lindsey. "He's been wrapping cheese on it, and I know that sounds funny, but it seems to work. He's been rubbing castor oil on it.'' Vonn also said that Red Bull trainers have been using laser treatments to promote healing. Despite Vonn's clear affection for and confidence in what she calls the "Red Bull team,'' official comments come from the U.S. Ski Team medical crew, which leads to hilarious moments like chief medical officer Dr. Jim Moeller being asked about cheese wrapping and saying, stiffly, "It's not something I'm, aware of.''
In any case, the next step will come Thursday morning in downhill training for Sunday's super combined event (one run of downhill with one run of slalom). "That's going to be the real test," says Vonn. "And I really don't know what to expect. Right now I feel like I'm at the point where I can fight through the pain, But we'll see what happens." (Sterrett said, "You can never discount Lindsey and how tough she is.").
One distinct possibility is that Vonn could buy herself a little recovering time by skipping Sunday's super-combined, and look ahead to the downhill on Feb. 17 and the Super-G on Feb. 20. "Obviously my main events are the downhill and Super-G," Vonn told me. "But also the combined. But there's a big difference between skiing downhill and skiing slalom." (Translation: The slalom puts much more pressure on the shins, with constant turning, although the downhill is no picnic, either).
Weather could also play a factor. The mountains at Whistler-Blackcomb resort, where all Alpine racing will take place, were enshrouded for the second half of Wednesday, truncating men's downhill training after 40 racers. "We're assuming there are going to be more delays and postponements,'' said U.S. men's downhiller Marco Sullivan. In 1998, Austrian great Hermann Maier was banged up in a spectacular downhill crash and then won gold medals in Super-G and giant slalom after delays in the mountains outside Nagano, Japan gave him extra recovery time. Vonn could benefit similarly. "Nothing would make me happier than five days straight with pounding blizzards,'' said Thomas. "But do I think Lindsey won't ski any races? No, I think she will ski in the Olympics.''
Vonn had come to Vancouver as the 2010 Games' version of Michael Phelps -- a U.S. star with the potential to win multiple medals over multiple days. (And she's far more telegenic than Phelps). Clearly the script has been changed. Vonn said she went public with her injury because if she was unable to complete downhill training on Thursday, there would be no hiding that something was wrong. "I wanted to tell you guys now," she said at her press conference, "as opposed to you guys watching the first training run and I'm not in it."
It is a public relations strategy that complicates Vonn's quest. Consider if Vonn was a football or hockey player. She -- or her team -- would be in lockdown to prevent the public from learning about her injury. And if word leaked out, it would be acknowledged only that she has a "lower-body" injury. Of course, hockey and football players can attack each other's injured body parts, while skiers cannot.
And in revealing the injury, Vonn has added another layer of drama to her quest. If she wins, she's not only a gold medalist, but a gold medalist who beat long physical odds to even compete. If she loses, or can't race at all, she was torpedoed by fate. Again. Which would be brutally unjust.
And in a sense, she has gone back in time. Her training crash four years ago in Sestriere put the ski racing world on hold, waiting to see if she would race, if she would somehow climb off the training table. And she did. Now the ski world waits again.