Column: Vonn back at the bottom of the hill again

February 6, 2013 - 5:30 AM
Austria Alpine Skiing Worlds

United States’ Lindsey Vonn speeds down the course during the women's super-G course, at the Alpine skiing world championships in Schladming, Austria, Tuesday, Feb.5, 2013. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

The news sounded bad at first, then got better, though it's still a long way from good.

So if most of what you know about skiing revolves around the Olympics, there was some consolation to be had in how quickly the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association expressed confidence that Lindsey Vonn would return from torn knee ligaments and the broken leg she suffered Tuesday in plenty of time to compete in the 2014 Sochi Games. And if nothing else, it had to make the folks at NBC breathe easier.

The network unveiled its broadcast plans within hours of Vonn's crash at the world championships in Schladming, Austria, and predictions it would turn a profit seemed much more reasonable once U.S. team officials came out with an equally bold prediction that Vonn would be back on the slopes a year from now — perhaps even sooner — to help. With a lot of other athletes, that would have been wishful thinking. But Vonn isn't just the biggest draw in the Winter Games' most important TV market; she might also be the toughest competitor — hockey players included — on the entire U.S. team.

The world championships marked the sixth straight major competition in which Vonn has been hit with injuries. She started the season hampered by equipment problems in October, then landed in the hospital with a stomach ailment in November. She returned in time to sweep both downhills and the super-G at Lake Louise in Canada in December, the second year in a row she's managed the hat trick there. Then came a series of unlikely falls in European races, followed by Vonn's announcement that she was returning stateside to deal with a flare-up of the intestinal problems.

Then came Tuesday's crash.

Reconstructive knee surgeries are an occupational hazard in the sport, and more than a few skiers have come back from shredded ligaments and broken bones in less than a year. Besides, Vonn is no stranger to playing with pain. She went straight from the hospital to the starting gate at the 2006 Turin Olympics, just two days after flying off the training course going well over 50 mph, and competed in four of her five planned events. Three years later, after winning a World Cup downhill, she grabbed a champagne bottle during what was supposed to be a celebratory photo-op without realizing the friend who opened it used a ski to chop off the top. The jagged glass nearly cut clean through the flexor tendon in her thumb.

Doctors told Vonn to consider ending the season right then. She told them to stitch the wound up, had a special brace made and went on to win her second straight overall World Cup title. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Vonn took gold in the downhill and a bronze in the super-G despite a shin so severely bruised that she winced every time she buckled up her boots.

That toughness, combined with Vonn's striking good looks and a resume that includes four world championships in addition to the Olympic hardware, explain why she's become the sport's cover girl. Rumors have linked her to athletes ranging from Tim Tebow a while back to Tiger Woods recently. Those celebrity turns in the spotlight and photo shoots — check out this month's cover and story in Outside magazine — play up her glamour-girl appeal while making it easy to forget what a cold-blooded competitor Vonn has been for the past half-dozen years.

And it's that quality that prompted the U.S. team to issue a statement that Vonn "is expected to return to racing" for the 2013-14 season, months before the Sochi Games, even though the surgery is still days away. When she returned to the tour in January, Vonn expressed relief that she'd regained enough of her strength to win the downhill at Cortina d'Ampezzo in Italy and was looking forward to chasing down all-time women's winner, Annemarie Moser-Proll of Austria, whose 62 world cup titles appeared within reach this season.

"My confidence is back, but I'm still not sure if my strength is going to hold up the rest of the season. ... I'm just taking it one day at a time, trying to maintain my strength and manage my energy as best I can," Vonn wrote in a first-person story for the Denver Post last month. "I hope it's enough."

That climb just got a whole lot tougher.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.