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 Olympics. 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 only 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.
Maybe even racing against men.
“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.”