Lindsey Vonn is back from injury and is as determined as ever
Lindsey Vonn understands one speed, and it’s a speed only the best women’s downhill ski racer in history can understand.
In much the same way she aggressively tackles the racecourse, she goes near full throttle off it as well. For the most part, this has gotten her to where she is now, which is second on the all-time World Cup wins list.
Although, this mentality also has its drawbacks.
“You know me. I can’t sit still; I’m really impatient,” Vonn said earlier this week. “I’m disappointed. I think maybe in hindsight I should have waited a little longer and gotten some more training in and then maybe I would have been a little more prepared for World Championships.”
Vonn will compete in today’s World Cup Finals downhill race at Aspen Mountain and has battled through a lot this season just to get to this point. While the Vail resident only lives a relatively short drive from Aspen, the journey she took to get here included two major injuries and a lot of resolve.
“I feel like as the season has gone on, I’ve gotten more confident,” Vonn said. “I wish that had been a few months ago, but it is what it is. Right now I’m focused on next year and I want to finish strong here in Aspen.”
Vonn, now 32, was in position to win her fifth overall title and first since 2012 before a crash in February 2015 while racing in Andorra eventually led to her ending her season short. Lara Gut went on to win the overall, while Vonn took second.
Then, while training at Copper Mountain in November as she still was recovering from that injury, Vonn severely fractured the humerus bone in her right arm. The fracture was so bad it damaged the nerves in her arm, making it difficult to even hold a ski pole.
“My hand still sucks,” Vonn said Monday in Aspen, doing her best to move her fingers. “I’ve had to try and find a way to get my nerves to come back, and it’s been really difficult, because no one can give me an answer to how it will come back faster.”
Vonn, determined as ever, got creative. From hand calisthenics in the hot tub to attaching the ski pole to her hand, the process to get back on the snow was anything but easy.
She made her season debut Jan. 15 at a downhill in Altenmarkt-Zauchensee, Austria, taking a surprising 13th. It was her first race since Feb. 28, 2016, in Andorra.
Six days later in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, Vonn stunned the crowd by winning the downhill race, only her second competition in nearly a year. It was the 77th World Cup victory of her career, a number only bested by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark (86).
Since then, it’s been a bunch of almosts for Vonn. She returned in time to compete in February’s World Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where she took third in the downhill and fifth in alpine combined. Most recently, she took second in a downhill and super-G at the Olympic test event in South Korea.
“I faced that same thing for years, so I know what it is,” said Bode Miller, a longtime U.S. teammate of Vonn’s who is largely considered to be the greatest American male skier of all time. “Age catches up with you, and she has not been gentle with her body. She trains very hard, and she skis hard and those crashes, she’s had a lot of them now. You can’t just shake them off. At some point it’s just a mental game.”
Vonn is trying to prove this week in Aspen that she has once again conquered the mental game. She is dealing with what she calls a “chest cold,” which she picked up on the way back from South Korea. However, after finishing sixth and third in the two downhill training runs Monday and Tuesday, Vonn assured everyone she is ready to race.
“I’m definitely a little low on energy,” Vonn said after Monday’s training run, “but otherwise I feel pretty good. I felt really strong in Korea. I still went to the gym and lifted weights, so my legs feel physically strong.”
Vonn isn’t competing for much this week in terms of hardware. She is sixth in the downhill standings, long the discipline she has dominated, and can’t catch Ilka Stuhec or Sofia Goggia, who will battle it out for the top spot. Vonn is 11th in the super-G, nowhere near Stuhec, who leads the discipline standings by 15 points over Tina Weirather.
Vonn is 23rd in the overall, a title that seems destined to wind up with Eagle-Vail’s Mikaela Shiffrin by the end of the weekend.
“Lindsey, she is unique in the same since that Mikaela is unique. They are physically dominant women,” Miller said. “There are not that many women who are big and strong and dynamically fit to be able to race World Cup at that level. Those two are and they show it every day, plus they work twice as hard as everybody else.”
Vonn knows that hard work won’t amount to much this weekend, although a win would move her closer to catching Stenmark. She also has never won in Aspen, a place the downhill women haven’t competed at since 2007. Vonn was at that last race, taking fourth.
Still, Vonn refuses to be anyone beside herself. Quitting isn’t in her vocabulary, and she seems determined to get back to her dominant form.
“Here at the end of the season I’m skiing much better,” Vonn said. “I want to be really prepared for the Olympics, have a really good prep period where I’m strong and healthy and getting my training in so I can start the season confident.”
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