VAIL — When ski racer Lindsey Vonn sustained a knee injury earlier this week during a training run on Copper Mountain, her upcoming season and especially the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia were thrown into question.
It seems now the season is in the hands of the reigning Olympic downhill champion’s team of doctors and therapists, who will work with Vonn over the next few weeks to see when and if she will be able to continue racing.
Vonn crashed on Tuesday and was taken off the slopes on a sled. According to a statement from her publicist, she “sustained a mild strain to her right knee, a partial tear to her right ACL, minor facial abrasions and scapular contusions from her fall.”
She will rest for a few days and then will pursue physical therapy and will determine the next time she is able to compete depending on how she responds to the treatment, the statement said.
Vonn injured the same knee last Feburary, for which she underwent surgery for a torn ACL and MCL. After Tuesday’s crash, Vonn was resting and working with orthopedic surgeon Dr. Bill Sterett in Vail where she lives. Before the injury, she had planned to race at the first World Cup speed races of the season at Beaver Creek next week.
ACL injuries in skiing
So what’s this mean, just a little over three months from the start of the Winter Olympics? Injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament are common among athletes, especially ski racers, and can range from strains on the ligament to partial and full tears. The most serious cases can be repaired through surgery, replacing the destroyed ligament with cadaver tissue. Other times, physical therapy suffices.
In fact, it is possible to ski without the ligament, as in the case of Kristina (Koznick) Landa, a slalom specialist who competed in the Turin Olympics in 2006 with a completely torn ACL.
Koznick had injured the knee while on a training run just a couple weeks before the Olympics. Sterett was also her doctor, and with the games so close at hand, she decided to go ahead and race.
“For me, the difference from Lindsey’s injury is that (Sterett) looked at mine and told me there wasn’t much of the ligament left,” said Koznick. “It was more like trying to push through because I was near the end of my career, which I guess is the case with Lindsey, too. It was mind over matter at that point to see if I could I keep it together until the race.”
Wearing a brace to support the leg and getting around on crutches until the Olympics, Koznick took one run before doctors pulled the plug. She said that while she was able to ski, the injury did not allow her to compete anywhere near her usual level, and she suspects Vonn would feel the same at this point.
“I finished my run, did the interviews and got to the end of the fencing, and Dr. Sterett was standing there. He said, ‘You’re done.’ The risk was just too great,” she said. “As athletes, sometimes I think our vision is just skewed, and we get tunnel vision.”
However, for retired U.S. Ski Team member Sarah Schleper in 2006, an ACL injury ended her season. She crashed during a race in Norway, fully tearing her ACL, MCL and meniscus.
“My knee just collapsed when I stood up and tried to put my ski back on, and that’s when I knew I’d done something serious,” she said.
Sterett repaired the knee, followed by six months of rehabilitation and recovery. She’d already had two back surgeries earlier that season, so she took the rest of the year off. She also sat out the following season to have a baby. After two full seasons, she successfully returned to competition.
What about Beaver Creek?
Vonn had planned to race at next week’s Nature Valley Raptor races at Beaver Creek on her home turf, although those plans are in the air at this point. John Dakin, of the Vail Valley Foundation, which is organizing the race, said the community and the Foundation wish her a speedy return to competition, even if it means she won’t race at Beaver Creek.
“From the outset of her rehab, the main goal has always been to defend her gold medal in Sochi, and that continues to be the focus. It would obviously be great to have one of the toughest skiers compete on one of the toughest courses in Beaver Creek, but if it isn’t able to happen this year, then it’s full speed ahead to Sochi, and we will welcome her to Raptor in 2015,” said Dakin.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at email@example.com and 970-748-2927.