It would have been a remarkable and inspiring story if Lindsey Vonn had won her second consecutive gold medal in the Olympic downhill barely a year after a crash in which she suffered catastrophic damage to her right knee. She required surgery last March to reconstruct the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, and just the passage of time to heal a tibial plateau fracture in that same leg. It would have been the kind of performance that fits all sorts of Olympic storytelling paradigms: Obstacle overcome, star power proven, genuine greatness validated. It would have been the moment of the Games, or of any Games.
And it would have been even more remarkable and more inspiring if she had won that second gold medal less than three months after re-tearing the ACL (which had been reconstructed using a 10-inch piece of Vonn's right hamstring) during a speed training session on Nov. 19 at Copper Mountain Resort in Colorado. And it would have buried the needle on improbability and drama if Vonn had somehow taken home a gold just 53 days after that right knee, encased in a heavy brace, buckled beneath Vonn as she carved through an unthreatening turn in a World Cup downhill race in Val D'Isere, France, on Dec. 21. That would have been the story that parents tell their children and children retell theirs, the story of the day that the great Lindsey Vonn won the Olympics on one good leg (with Tiger Woods watching at the bottom).
But this will not happen. Vonn announced early Tuesday morning that she will be unable to participate in the Games, which begin in Sochi, Russia on Feb. 7. Vonn's withdrawal, which came in the form of a press release from her Los Angeles-based publicist, has seemed increasingly inevitable in recent days, a certainty held at bay only by Vonn's long record of winning while in physical distress. But she had not raced since the Val d'Isere incident, and last week U.S. team coach Alex Hoedlmoser told the Associated Press that Vonn had not been on skis since that race and was considering not competing at all before Sochi. Vonn said that she will soon repeat the ACL surgery and plans to return to competition in 2015.
Early Tuesday morning, Vonn posted the following message on her Facebook page:
"I am devastated to announce that I will not be able to compete in Sochi. I did everything I possibly could to somehow get strong enough to overcome having no ACL but the reality has sunk in that my knee is just too unstable to compete at this level. I'm having surgery soon so that I can be ready for the World Championships at home in Vail next February. On a positive note, this means there will be an additional spot so that one of my teammates can go for gold. Thank you all so much for all of the love and support. I will be cheering for all of the Olympians and especially team USA!''
Vonn's absence deprives the Games of one of its most significant U.S. stars; only snowboarder Shaun White can come close to matching Vonn's celebrity wattage, a status driven into TMZ territory by her nearly year-long relationship with Woods. More measurably, it deprives one of the most dominant ski racers in history (and by far the best U.S. female racer in history) of the chance to add more Olympic medals to her career record. Vonn has won 59 World Cup races in her career, just three short of the record held by Annemarie Moser-Proell of Austria; Vonn has four World Cup overall titles, second to Moser-Proell's six. Yet at age 29, and now in a need of a second ACL reconstruction in less than a year, Vonn's window is much nearer to closing than it was a year ago, and her demolition of all-time records much less certain. From a much broader view, her absence underscores the fragile nature of the Olympic athlete's quest, trying to hit a tiny quadrennial bulls-eye when the smallest -- or biggest -- injury can come at precisely the wrong time.
After winning the Olympic downhill at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Vonn went on to win the 2010 and '12 overall titles, the latter after her divorce from husband-coach Thomas Vonn, and then missed much of the 2013 season while suffering from the after-effects of an intestinal illness. But she arrived at the 2013 World Championships in Schladming, Austria, back at the top of her game. In the downhill, however, she flew too far on a jump and landed in soft snow, imploding the inside of her right knee. The joint was repaired by U.S. team surgeon Dr. Bill Sterett, who had first operated on Vonn when she was 14 years old. Vonn took to rehab with Olympic medals hanging in her training room, reminders of the goals that lay ahead.
Vonn, ever tenacious, seemed ahead of schedule for Sochi. She pointed toward World Cup races on Thanksgiving weekend at Beaver Creek, Colo., near her home in Vail. But on the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 19, she took that spill in training and was photographed being helped off the hill by U.S. team coaches. It was announced that Vonn had suffered a "partial'' tear of the reconstructed ACL, but she vowed to continue her push toward the Games.
Just 17 days after the Copper crash, Vonn returned to racing in a World Cup downhill at Lake Louise in Canada, where she has won 14 races. Skiing tentatively, Vonn finished 40th in a downhill on Dec. 6, but pushed more aggressively on subsequent days and finished 11th in a second downhill and fifth in a Super-G on Dec. 8. After that race, Vonn was ebullient. "I know I can win again,'' she told reporters in Canada. "I'm ready for Sochi.''
Yet the Lake Louse course is not only Vonn's favorite, but also a relatively flat (by World Cup standards) speed track that didn't truly test Vonn's damaged knee. Enthusiasm probably should have been tempered by all parties. She returned to training and didn't re-emerge until four days before Christmas in France. Leading to the race, the Internet crackled with news that Woods had flown to Val d'Isere to watch Vonn race; he was photographed at the bottom of the hill. But Woods's presence was quickly overwhelmed when Vonn skied off course after her knee buckled on a sweeping, right-footed turn about 80 seconds into the race.
After the race, Vonn described the incident: "It was a small compression, and I was fully loaded on the right ski and my knee just completely gave out. I tried to pressure the ski again and it gave out again. I had no chance of making that gate, unfortunately.''
Also, for the first time, Vonn described her injury as more than a partial ACL tear. "The thing is I have no ACL. So unless I get surgery there's nothing really magical that I can do that's going to make it better," she said. "I just can get my leg stronger, my muscle stronger and try and support it a little more. But that has a small impact. My knee is loose and it's not stable and that's the way it's going to be from here on out. I just have to get used to it.''
In the statement issued Tuesday morning, it was revealed that Vonn also suffered a sprain of the reconstructed MCL in the Val D'Isere race, which seemed to push her further toward the decision to withdraw.
After that race, Vonn went back to the U.S., but did not make it back to snow training. By this week, her Olympic goal had become unreachable. She is expected to target next year's world championships, which will take place on her home mountain in Vail. And at the 2018 Olympics, she will be only 33, no longer old for a ski racer. None of this erases the disappointment of missing the most important competition in the world at the peak of her athletic powers.