Snowflakes drift across the late winter Colorado sky, laying down a mattress of fresh powder on the slopes rising above Vail village and chasing the tourist ski season into March. Cars are parked along access roads because the garages are full, and skiers are carving turns down the south-facing home trails, racing the daylight for one last run. Indoors, guests walk through the lobby of an opulent resort, wearing flip-flops and thick terry-cloth robes, clutching glasses of white wine to drink in sprawling hot tubs. One of them is squeaking along on aluminum crutches; her right leg is wrapped in a knee brace, and she is looking for a couch.
This is an article from the March 18, 2013 issue
There is a cruel beauty in this for Lindsey Vonn; she is surrounded by snow and mountains that dwarf the little Minnesota hill on which she learned the sport, yet she can't ski on them. Occasionally an empathetic but unaware guest will see her and commiserate in a way that robs Vonn of her modest celebrity: Oh, sweetie, did you take a fall? You'll be better soon. Thousands of miles away the World Cup tour that she has dominated for half a decade races on toward its season's finish in the Swiss Alps, yet she is long gone from the start lists. For now, at least, she has been replaced as her sport's star. The Olympics are less than a year away, and Vonn faces months of rehabilitation and recovery after tearing her ACL and MCL and suffering small fractures of her femur and tibia in a brutal crash on Feb. 5, during the Super G at the Alpine world championships in Schladming, Austria.
Here she flops sideways, enveloped in giant, pale green embroidered pillows, 5' 10" but looking like a shrunken Alice gone down the rabbit hole. It has been six years since she has been home at this time of the year, then because she suffered a partial tear of her right ACL (the same one that's now been replaced) while training slalom at the 2007 worlds in Sweden. It wasn't great then, and it's worse now. "Weird, and driving me nuts," says Vonn, 28. "There's all this snow, and I keep hearing [World Cup] results. And I'm stuck in my condo."
This is where the climb begins. In the present-day sports world of injury, medicine and rehab, the athlete disappears from TV screens on a flatbed cart (or in Vonn's case, dangling from a helicopter) and reemerges months later, fully rebuilt and armed with a narrative of determination and drive and how tough it was back at the start (see: Adrian Peterson). That's where Vonn is now: back at the start. It's a place where life moves slowly and victories entail simple achievements such as bending a wounded leg more than 30 degrees. Still, this slowdown might bring ancillary benefits.
In the 36 months since she won her first Olympic medals (gold in the downhill and bronze in the Super G in Vancouver), Vonn had—deep breath—won 28 World Cup races (moving her into second place alltime, behind Annemarie Moser-Proell of Austria) and two overall titles (for a total of four, also second to Moser-Proell); suffered a concussion and dangerously skied with its aftereffects at the 2011 worlds; ended her four-year marriage to Thomas Vonn, whom she had known for more than a decade and who coordinated much of her career; reconciled with her father, who had strongly disapproved of his daughter's relationship and marriage; embarrassingly paid more than $1.7 million in back taxes; revealed to People that she suffers from depression and takes medication for it; and missed chunks of the 2013 season after suffering a debilitating and still undiagnosed intestinal illness in November that left her sleeping in her condo bathroom for three days because, in her words, "S--- happens. Literally."
At the end of all of that, she has reportedly begun a relationship with Tiger Woods that has thrust Vonn into a world where her life is covered not just by SI and NBC, but also by TMZ. (Vonn steadfastly will not confirm the relationship. "I'd like to keep my personal life private," she said in Vail. "In reality, I know that's not possible. In the present, I'm trying to pretend it's possible." She is not humorless on this subject; asked if she noticed Rory McIlroy's withdrawal from the Honda Classic that day, she laughed and said, "Yes, I did.")
In a sense, her crash in Schladming not only stopped her season but also put the brakes on the runaway train that's been her life. "A lot of curveballs, a lot of drama," says Vonn. "Through everything, skiing has been my outlet. But maybe I have had too much stack up, and it's been go, go, go for the last few years. And so this was God's way of saying 'You need a break.' I don't want a break, but I will come back stronger."
Not long after the surgery, Vonn took her two Olympic medals out of their safety deposit box in Vail and brought them to her condo. She will have them mounted in a case in the basement workout room where much of her rehab and training will take place in the coming months. They are silent, shiny reminders of where she has been, and where she wishes to return.
On the morning of Feb. 5, Vonn awoke prepared to reestablish ownership of the speed races (downhill and Super G) on the women's tour by winning the world Super G title. After her stomach illness she had taken a full month off, from mid-December to mid-January, to regain her strength. In her absence (and that of Austrian slalom specialist Marlies Schild, also injured), Tina Maze of Slovenia had dominated the World Cup in historic fashion. But in the days before the worlds Vonn had done strong giant slalom and downhill training in Sudtirol, Italy, with the Norwegian men's team.
Skiers inspected the Super G course at 8 a.m. on race day, but shortly thereafter fog rolled in, delaying the scheduled 11 a.m. start repeatedly. Vonn texted her sister Laura, 22, who had been traveling with her in Europe, and told her they would meet for lunch at 1:30 because the race was likely to be postponed. Minutes later Vonn texted again and said the race was on. The first skier pushed out of the start house at 2:30 that afternoon.
Maze started No. 18 and assumed the lead. The next skier was Vonn. After a fast start she hit the second timing interval at 42.50 seconds, .12 behind Maze. A second later, traveling at 70 mph, Vonn swept through a wide, right-footed turn and then sailed into the air off a small jump. What happened in the ensuing seconds will be recounted endlessly in the coming months.
In recalling the crash, Vonn says the snow, appropriately icy early in the morning, had broken down badly on the course, making for an uneven racing surface. "But I thought I was skiing it pretty well," she says. "I came into the jump on exactly the line that we inspected." (Maze was quoted after the race as saying that Vonn took a "too-direct line.") Vonn says, "I always anticipate going further [off jumps] than the other women. If I had to go back and change [the line], I wouldn't. I just flew too far. When I was in the air, I looked to where I was going to land and I could see that snow was broken up and soft, almost like it was wet. I thought, Oh, s---." Knowing that she had to make a sharp left turn immediately after landing, Vonn put pressure on her right leg as she dropped to the snow. "Then when I landed," Vonn says, "my right ski literally stopped."
On the race video her right knee can be seen bending inward sharply. Her momentum stalled, Vonn went tumbling down the slope. She felt an odd sensation, "like my whole body went over the tips of my skis," Vonn says. The pain came just afterward. She could be heard screaming even before coming to a stop.
Vonn had always been told that an ACL tear is accompanied by a pop, and she heard no pop. But the feeling of her knee coming unhinged left her thinking instantly that her leg was broken, perhaps badly. Lying in the snow in her Lycra racing suit, she thought immediately about Bryon Friedman, a promising former U.S. racer who broke his right tibia and fibula (and nearly lost his leg) in 2005 at age 24 in a downhill training crash. Friedman, now 32, underwent eight surgeries in the ensuing months and never returned to top form. "When I came to a stop on the hill that day," says Friedman, now a singer-songwriter and ski equipment entrepreneur, "I knew deep down, this could be it for me."
Vonn felt the same way. "I thought about Bryon," she says, "because that was the worst-possible scenario." Minutes later she was loaded, crying, onto a hard plastic sled and lifted, with two attendants, into the air for a 10-minute ride to a nearby hospital. It was the third time in her career that she had been given this carnival ride. "All you can see is the sky, and all I could feel was pain," says Vonn. "Not a fun experience."
While U.S. women's ski team doctor Bill Sterett, an orthopedic surgeon, scrambled for transportation to the hospital, Austrian doctors examined Vonn's leg and swiftly determined that she had torn her ACL and MCL. An MRI and X-rays confirmed the diagnosis and also revealed a plateau fracture affecting both the tibia (shin bone) and femur (thigh bone). It was bad news, but not the worst-case scenario Vonn had feared. Laura found her sister alone in an examining area. "She was a mess," says Laura. "We both just started crying."
Sterett has viewed the crash video numerous times. "Lindsey's right ski stopped, but her body was still going forward and turning left," he says. "So the MCL went first, which allowed the knee to begin dislocating, and then she tore the ACL, which allowed the knee to completely dislocate." As the knee rebounded, Vonn's femur slammed against her tibia, creating nondisplaced fractures on the surface of both bones. All of this, says Sterett, took place, in "much less than a second." By the time Vonn's leg is seen bending inward on the race video, all of the damage is done.
Vonn spent two full days in Austria after the crash. Her sister dialed up family members and friends and put them on speakerphone for Vonn. U.S. teammates, several of whom have had ACL surgery, visited Vonn's bus. Officials from Red Bull, the Austrian company that is one of Vonn's primary sponsors, pushed for surgery in Innsbruck. Sterett, who has treated Vonn since she was 14, pushed to bring her home. Alan Kildow, Vonn's father, encouraged her to speak to Dr. James Andrews, which she did. The noted orthopedic surgeon assured Vonn that he would do exactly what Sterett planned, and Vonn settled on Sterett.
She flew home on a jet that was widely reported to be owned by Woods, which Vonn also will not confirm. On the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 10, she checked into Vail Valley Surgery Center, where hers was to be the only procedure performed that day.
Sterett, 52, first worked on Vonn when she suffered a tibial plateau fracture at age 14. He has since treated her multiple times for various injuries. On a recent afternoon Vonn lay on a portable table in her condo as Sterett described the reconstruction of her knee, pointing to various spots on her leg as if it were an artist's canvas.
The surgery fell into three parts. First, Sterett harvested a 10-inch piece of Vonn's hamstring to use as a new ACL. In football players such as Peterson, a graft from the patellar tendon is used, but ski racers are more inclined to develop patellar tendinitis, so the hamstring makes a better substitute. Then, through the same two-inch incision on the lower part of Vonn's knee, Sterett used three fishhooklike anchors to reattach the MCL, which had torn completely off her tibia. "In 95 percent of MCLs, they tear off the femur and heal on their own," says Sterett. "Lindsey's tore off the tibia because of [her] velocity. That alone puts her injury in the upper 5 percent of combined ACL-MCL injuries, in terms of severity."
(Vonn interjects, "See, I'm pushing boundaries even with my injuries.")
After the MCL was anchored, Sterett drilled a long tunnel from Vonn's tibia up through her femur (Vonn's leg was flexed at more than 90 degrees during the operation) and threaded the harvested hamstring into the opening, replacing the ravaged ACL, which, says Sterett, had exploded and looked like mop hairs. (When Vonn asked where the old ACL went, Sterett joked, "It's floating down the Eagle River.") The new ACL was anchored inside the tibia with a titanium screw and on the outside of the femur with a small rectangular titanium button that acts like a molly bolt, pushed through a hole in the bone until it pops out and flattens against the surface.
Lastly, Sterett smoothed out some damage to the articular cartilage beneath Vonn's kneecap. (There was no damage to her meniscus cartilage.) The small impaction fractures caused when the tibia slammed against the femur—"like a mortar and pestle," says Sterett—were left to heal on their own. The entire procedure took less than two hours. (When Sterett was interviewed by SI, it was late afternoon and he had done seven ACLs that day.)
Among the small benefits of Vonn's injury was that much of the Kildow family came to Vail for the operation: her parents, Alan and Linda (who have been divorced since 2003), and siblings Laura and Reed. Only sister Karin and brother Dylan were missing. "First time in a long time," says Laura of the large get-together. "It was nice."
Both parents have subtly been nudging Vonn to take back her former name, Lindsey Kildow, but she says that's not happening: "It's kind of a complicated name to say. I like Vonn. It sounds good. That's just me." This is an entirely separate issue from her marriage, which she is thankful to have left behind. "My mom put it like this," says Vonn. "If you put a frog in boiling water, he'll jump right out. If you put a frog in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, he will eventually boil to death. That's what my marriage was. I loved him once. But I wasn't happy anymore, and I'm much happier now."
Typically, Vonn has accelerated her rehab. She stopped nearly all pain medication two days after surgery because it made her feel strange. She insisted that a medicine port in her right hip be removed because she wanted to feel her atrophied muscles. She has the medals in her gym, but she also has targets etched in her head. She wants to make her annual off-season trip to Europe to work with Red Bull trainers Martin Hager and Patrick Rottenhofer. She wants to make Team USA speed training in Chile in September. Sterett says all of this is possible, though only the passing of months will enable it.
Where Vonn has been the designated superstar on the women's circuit since at least 2008, Maze has taken that role in 2013, with her record 2,254-point (as of Sunday) season, overall title and even a popular music single. Vonn says she will neither record a song of her own nor fixate on a single opponent. "I'm focused on doing everything I can to beat all of them," she says. "That's what I'm going to have to do to defend my gold medal."
So in the fading light of a snowy mountain day, a scenario is put to Vonn. Suppose the recovery takes a little longer than she would like, and she isn't ready to win again until 2015. Would that be acceptable? "Not acceptable," says Vonn, head down, shaking her blond mane vigorously. "I would not accept that. There is plenty of time between now and the Olympics. Plenty of time."