Healthy Vonn eyes Games re­turn

Amer­i­can star was side­lined for Sochi in 2014 with in­jury.

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Howard Fendrich and Pat Gra­ham

Lind­sey Vonn couldn’t wig­gle her fin­gers or move her wrist. Un­der­stand­ably, she wanted to be re­as­sured everything would be OK.

A crash dur­ing train­ing had left her scream­ing, then pass­ing out from the pain, on the side of a Colorado moun­tain, 15 months ahead of the Pyeongchang Olym- pics. Just one of a se­ries of se­ri­ous in­juries that has in­ter­rupted the Amer­i­can’s il­lus­tri­ous ski ca­reer, this re­quired del­i­cate surgery to in­sert a plate and more than a dozen screws into her bro­ken right arm while try­ing to avoid nerve dam­age.

“She looked up at me: ‘Buddy, you’re go­ing to fix this, right? You’ve got this?’” her long­time sports phys­i­cal ther­a­pist, Lind­say Win­ninger, re­called in a re­cent tele­phone in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press. “I con­fi­dently said, ‘Yes.’ But at that point in time, I didn’t know if I (could). That was hard from Day One . ... We were putting in

al­most eight hours a day on that arm, to try and re­vive the nerve a lit­tle bit and get things done as fast as pos­si­ble. That was a big one.”

There have been sev­eral big ones for Vonn along the way, no real sur­prise given that she spends day af­ter day hurtling her­self down icy slopes at speeds that can top 75 mph.

“The thing is, ev­ery­one asks me if I’m afraid af­ter so many crashes. Do I take my foot off the gas pedal? ... You try to man­age risk as much as you want,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it’s a dan­ger­ous sport.”

Con­cus­sions. Bro­ken fin­gers. Torn lig­a­ments. A frac­tured an­kle.

The lengthy list in­cludes the ripped-up right knee that held her out of the 2014 Sochi Games and pre­vented her from de­fend­ing her down­hill gold medal from four years ear­lier, when she also col­lected a bronze in the super-G.

“Eight years has been a very long time. Ob­vi­ously, I was very ... dis­ap­pointed and dev­as­tated and frus­trated that I missed Sochi,” the 33-year-old Vonn said. “I’ve been wait­ing for this for a long time. I’m ready.”

So it’s only nat­u­ral that as she looked ahead to the 2018 Win­ter Games, which open in South Korea on Feb. 9, Vonn voiced one pri­mary con­cern — and it was not re­lated to mak­ing sure her rac­ing would be at its best.

In sum: To get a chance to add to her medal col­lec­tion, she’ll need to be in the start­ing hut.

“I don’t re­ally think about peak­ing, so much as stay­ing healthy. As long as I’m healthy and con­fi­dent, then I’ll be in a great po­si­tion when I get to Pyeongchang,” Vonn said.

“Get­ting to Fe­bru­ary healthy,” she said, “is the only thing I should fo­cus on.”

As much as she’s al­ready done — and won — in a sport she has dom­i­nated for stretches, in­clud­ing four World Cup over­all ti­tles and seven world cham­pi­onships medals, Vonn still has plenty of un­fin­ished busi­ness on her agenda.

There’s her lin­ger­ing bid to break Inge­mar Sten­mark’s ca­reer record for most World Cup wins, the most cel­e­brated mark in ski rac­ing. Vonn’s count is up to 79, the most for a woman, and just seven be­hind Sten­mark, a Swede who com­peted in the 1970s and ’80s.

It’s that chase that prompted Vonn to de­clare al­ready that she has de­cided to re­turn to the World Cup cir­cuit next sea­son, say­ing, “I al­ready put enough pres­sure on my­self to reach that goal, any­way. I want to make sure I give my­self a lit­tle more time, so I’m not stressed about it.”

Then there’s her on­go­ing pur­suit of bar­rier-breaking com­pe­ti­tion against men, some­thing Vonn has spo­ken about pur­su­ing for years.

She views it as some­thing that could be as sig­nif­i­cant as Bil­lie Jean King’s ex­hi­bi­tion ten­nis match against Bobby Riggs in 1973, chron­i­cled in last year’s “Bat­tle of the Sexes.”

“I want to see what I’m ca­pa­ble of. It would be re­ally great ex­po­sure for the sport,” Vonn said. “My per­sonal am­bi­tions aside, I think you have to look at it from a broader per­spec­tive. What Bil­lie Jean King did all those years ago made a huge and last­ing impact. We have to con­tinue to push the en­ve­lope and push women for­ward in sports.”

U.S. Ski and Snow­board for­mally pe­ti­tioned the In­ter­na­tional Ski Fed­er­a­tion’s Alpine ex­ec­u­tive board in Oc­to­ber on be­half of Vonn, with a goal of be­ing al­lowed to race against men some­time next sea­son.

The pro­posal was put on hold; it is ex­pected to be con­sid­ered in May.

“Why not? We train with her,” said Vonn’s U.S. team­mate, Ted Ligety, a two-time Olympic gold medal­ist. “I’d fully be psyched to see her race against guys.”

In case you hadn’t no­ticed, Vonn is not de­terred eas­ily.

It’s why she never al­lowed any of those in­juries to de­rail her ca­reer for good.

It’s why she owned re­marks made in an in­ter­view with CNN, in which she said she would “ab­so­lutely not” visit the White House if the U.S. Olympic team is in­vited af­ter Pyeongchang and, “I want to rep­re­sent our coun­try well. I don’t think that there are a lot of peo­ple cur­rently in our gov­ern­ment that do that.”

Vonn took some heat on so­cial me­dia af­ter that aired in De­cem­ber, then de­fended her­self by say­ing at a sub­se­quent World Cup race:

“I was asked my opin­ion and I gave it. I mean, it’s not nec­es­sar­ily my place to be stick­ing my nose in pol­i­tics, but as an ath­lete, I do have a voice.”

What­ever might get in her way, Vonn presses ahead.

That’s why she will be back at the Olympics next month.

And back on World Cup cour­ses next year.

“I love go­ing fast. That’s why I haven’t stopped ski­ing. I’m 33. I’ve been in­jured quite a few times, but my pas­sion for the sport has never changed since I started rac­ing when I was 8 years old,” Vonn said. “As long as I’m still en­joy­ing it, and I don’t have to use too much duct tape to hold my body to­gether, I’m good. I’m set.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

Lind­sey Vonn shows off the gold she won in the women’s down­hill dur­ing the medal cer­e­mony at the Van­cou­ver 2010 Olympics.

GABRIELE FACCIOTTI / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Lind­sey Vonn gets in some pre-Olympics work dur­ing her vic­tory in a women’s World Cup race Dec. 16 in Val d’Isere, France.

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