LAKE LOUISE, Alberta— After completing her third race in three days back in December — a trio of tests, 10 months after reconstructive knee surgery and two months before the Sochi Olympics — Lindsey Vonn declared herself ready to go.
Ready to win, actually.
“I’m overcoming a lot and it shows me, mentally, what I’m capable of. I’ve obviously experienced a lot of injuries in my career, but this is definitely at the top of the list,” Vonn said then, raising her hand up near eye level. “Skiing with not very much ACL left — it’s pretty hard-core. ... I’m not going to give up, and I’m going to be in Sochi, fighting for my medal.”
Four weeks later, though, having re-injured her right knee, two-time Olympic medalist Vonn called off her bid to be ready for these Winter Games, reminding everyone what so many ski racers know so well: Theirs is an unforgiving sport. An Associated Press review of the careers of the top 50 in the overall World Cup standings on Jan. 12 — the 25 men and 25 women most likely to earn an Alpine medal in Russia, where the first race is scheduled for Feb. 9 — shows that more than half have missed significant time because of a skiing-related injury.
“She understands that, at some point in time, you’re going to have a serious injury,” said Vonn’s father, Alan Kildow. “It just happened to be before an Olympic year.”
Of the 27 athletes the AP found to have experienced major health issues due to ski accidents, 18 damaged knees, usually tearing a ligament, as happened to Vonn.
There’s a sense of inevitability about it among the elite-level ski racers and coaches, as if it’s a cost of doing business, essentially. If a big injury hasn’t happened yet, the thinking goes, it will.
Each time there’s an injury in a race or training, there are two parts of the comeback: the physical and the mental.
“We see a lot of shooting stars come in young, and I’m always the one to say: ‘Let’s wait until after the injury.‘ I know it sounds bad, but that’s the way it is,” said Hugues Ansermoz, the coach of Canada’s women’s Alpine team. “There have been a few people that disappear after injury; they can never come back. And this is not good, but it’s part of the game. The champions, the real champions, they all come back stronger.”
Ansermoz, previously Switzerland’s coach, pointed to someone from that country, Lara Gut. She won two silvers as a teenager at the 2009 world championships and was expected to shine at the Vancouver Games — until, that is, she dislocated her right hip in a training crash in September 2009, and sat out the Olympics.
Now Gut is back at her best, winning four World Cup races from late October to early December.
“After my injury,” said Gut, still only 22, “I started building my body again and my skills again.”
The International Ski Federation, known as FIS, makes rules changes here and there in the name of increased safety, such as tweaking specifications for the skis themselves. Helmets that are supposed to better shield heads in falls were introduced this season. More and more protective netting abuts courses.
“There’s always room for improvement, for sure, but it’s also necessary to say we’re at a very, very high level now in terms of what’s possible,” said Atle Skaardal, the women’s race director for FIS. “Everything is improving the whole time. But we also still kind of need to accept that as long as we’re in a sport with high speed ... you can’t eliminate everything.”
In other words: If you throw your body down the slippery side of a mountain at a velocity barred for vehicles on most roads in the United States, you’re bound to fall at some point. And if you fall, you’re bound to twist a leg or land on an arm or do damage in some way.
A concussion, say. Or a bruised back. Or a scraped-up face. Or — more often than not, it seems — a torn-up knee.
“There are a lot of athletes who have gone through ACL reconstruction. A lot of guys who have broken pelvises and legs. That’s part of the sport,” said U.S. racer Ted Ligety, a gold medalist at the 2006 Turin Olympics and three-time winner at last year’s world championships. “I’d say 90 percent of ski racers come back from ACL injuries just as good, if not stronger than before.”
Ligety, a 29-year-old from Park City, Utah, is one of the lucky ones: He hasn’t been forced to miss an Olympics or world championships because of a major injury. That’s not to say he never has been hurt, of course. One example: Ligety wiped out during downhill training at U.S. nationals in 2009, crashing face-first and partially tearing ligaments in his right knee.
But he did not need surgery. He did miss out on weeks of training while his knee was immobilized.
His American teammate Bode Miller, a five-time Olympic medalist, was away from competition for 20 months, including last year’s world championships, as he worked his way back from micro-fracture surgery on his left knee, which originally was injured all the way back in 2001. Joining Vonn on the sideline for Sochi are a pair of reigning world champions from France, Tessa Worley and Marion Rolland. Both injured knees.
During the women’s downhill race at Vancouver four years ago, Rolland was among a half-dozen racers who crashed, tearing a ligament seconds into her run. Edith Miklos, a Romanian, was airlifted away by helicopter with a knee injury. Five-time Olympic medalist Anja Paerson of Sweden lost control on the last jump, landed on her back and slid across the finish line.
Another racer falling that day was Dominique Gisin of Switzerland, who has needed nine — nine! — operations on her knees through the years, seven on the right one.
“I’ve had ACLs. I had a broken patella several times. I had ripped-out muscles. I think I did everything you can do to a knee, probably,” said Gisin, 13th in the World Cup standings on Jan. 12.
Gisin explained that she thought about quitting “every time” she had surgery.
“I love the sport, and I always try to fight back,” Gisin said. “But it’s not so easy, especially in the head. The mental part is probably harder.”
Fendrich reported from Lake Louise, Alberta; Graham reported from Copper Mountain, Colo., and Beaver Creek, Colo.
AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, contributed to this report.