Just less than one year shy of the 2014 Olympics, Lindsey Vonn's comeback train eased away from the station Thursday afternoon, as the defending Olympic downhill gold medalist, most successful U.S. ski racer in history and, along with snowboarder Shaun White, one of the two most recognizable faces of the U.S. winter games, made her first public comments since blowing out her right knee in a Super-G crash at the World Alpine Championships in Schladming, Austria on Feb. 5 and undergoing surgery to repair two torn ligaments five days later in Vail, Colorado.
Vonn, 28, had won four of the previous five World Cup overall titles -- emblematic of all-around excellence -- and, with 59 race victories, had moved into second place all-time among women (three behind Annemarie Moser-Proell of Austria, whose career ran from 1969-'80), when she crashed 45 seconds into the first of her races the at the worlds. Vonn was trailing current World Cup overall leader Tina Maze of Slovenia by a very small margin in the race when she landed hard on a jump and her right knee collapsed violently inward. She fell immediately and somersaulted to a stop further down the hillside.
In a conference call with reporters she recalled the crash. "Basically what happened was I came into that jump going a little bit faster, or I don't know if I just hit the jump wrong, but I feel like I flew a lot further than the other girls,'' said Vonn from Vail, where she has a home and where her sister, Laura, is living with her during rehab. "When I landed, the snow was just different. The snow was soft. It was not slick, basically, and my right ski just stopped and my knee buckled. I feel that loose snow was 100 percent the reason why I crashed.''
The women's Super-G was the first race of the 13-day world championships, and the start of the race was delayed several hours by foggy conditions. Fifty-nine skiers were entered, but the race was truncated after 36. "I do not think the [race officials] made the right call [to run the race],'' said Vonn Thursday. "I think in the morning the snow was great, frozen and hard. Then the fog came in and we had to delay the start. We can't run in that fog. We were on the edge for hours. I inspected the course at 8 a.m., and we raced at 3:15.'' (Note: The race started at 2:30, but Vonn probably, indeed, did not race until roughly 3:15).
"Honestly when I was in the start, I felt like I was ready to go,'' said Vonn. "But I had no idea what the course was like. It was too soft. It broke down, and I do not think it was safe. While I was lying in the snow [after the crash], I called my coach, Alex (Hoedlmoser), and told him they should stop the race.'' (Note: Vonn only criticized officials when she was asked by media on the last question of a 21-minute conference call).
Vonn had started 19th in the race; seventeen of the first 18 racers preceding her completed the course, but the three of the next four following Vonn did not finish. Maze, who won the race, started one position before Vonn.
Vonn spent three more days in Europe before flying home. "I had a really hard time while I was still in Europe,'' she said, "coming to the realization that my season was over, [that] I won't have a chance to defend my title, I won't have a chance to compete in the rest of the world championships. That was really hard.''
There were reports that Vonn was flown home on a private jet owned by Tiger Woods, with whom Vonn has been rumored to have an ongoing relationship. Asked about Woods Thursday, Vonn said, "I'm only two weeks out from the worst injury I've had in my career. At this point, I'm just not going to talk about my personal life.''
That injury included a torn ACL and MCL in her right knee along with a tibial plateau fracture and cartilage damage. Vonn said the fracture and cartilage damage were not significant. Dr. Bill Sterrett performed reconstructive surgery in Vail on Sunday, Feb. 10. Vonn said she had since been undergoing physical therapy twice a day, seven days a week, and is allowed to do upper body training "that doesn't activate my leg.'' She is walking on crutches, but expects to ditch those in six weeks.
Vonn, like most ski racers, has been injured frequently through her 14-year professional career, but had never previously undergone major reconstructive joint surgery. Yet she has drawn strength from teammates and from her friend, Maria Hoefl-Reisch of Germany, who Vonn said "Has had ACLs in both knees and she's totally fine and doing very well.
"I'm not concerned about when I come back,'' said Vonn. "I just want to make sure that when I get back on snow, my knee is 100 percent. [But] I have no doubt that I will be ready for Sochi.''
And in that event, said Vonn, "I feel like in some ways I'm the underdog now and that will help ease the pressure a little bit.'' That is a nice thought, but in fact, the opposite is more likely; Vonn's comeback while denting her armor of dominance, is likely to make her an even more significant player at the Games, adding a layer of drama to an already compelling story.