Vonn takes silver in downhill despite head injury
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany – Add this to the long list of Lindsey Vonn’s memorable achievements.
The Minnesota native swept aside effects of a head injury to claim the silver medal in the downhill at the world championships Sunday, finally claiming a spot on the podium following days of uncertainty and endless medical exams for her slight concussion.
“For me, this silver is as good as gold,” Vonn said. “I’ve been fighting the last couple of days just to be able to race today and I’m very proud of this second place – it was the best result possible for me.”
Vonn has been struggling with the aftereffects of hitting her head in a training crash in Austria 11 days ago. The Olympic downhill champion lost her super G title Tuesday when she finished seventh, and skipped the slalom part of the super-combined Friday, saying both days that it felt like she was “skiing in a fog.”
As Vonn became the last race favorite to kick out of the starting gate, the “Mission Impossible” theme music began playing over the loudspeakers and a hush settled over the crowd of about 50,000.
Vonn was fast – faster than she’s been all week – but not as smooth as when she’s at her best, and gradually lost time as she made her way down the lengthy Kandahar course, which sits in the shadow of the 9,718-foot Zugspitze, the highest peak in Germany.
Vonn had a slight bobble shortly before crossing the finish, but even without that was not likely to catch winner Elisabeth Goergl of Austria, who completed a sweep of the speed events after her super G victory – matching Vonn’s feat from two years ago.
Vonn finished 0.44 seconds behind Goergl, with German rival and good friend Maria Riesch 0.60 back in third. The American appeared pleased with her run, pumping her fist and nodding her head in approval.
Still, it was clear this wasn’t the same Vonn who won the last three World Cup downhill titles.
U.S. speed coach Chip White said Vonn’s “overdrive” was missing, and Thomas Vonn, the racer’s husband and adviser, acknowledged she was still showing symptoms from the concussion.
“She told me that three-quarters of the way down it started to get bad and she couldn’t concentrate and couldn’t feel it right,” he said. “So she really dug deep and pulled it out today.”
Vonn has dug deep before, like when she had a horrific crash in downhill training at the 2006 Turin Olympics, then went directly from her hospital room to the mountain and finished eighth. Or when she sliced her thumb open on a champagne bottle at the last worlds, then returned to claim her second overall World Cup title. Or when she battled through severe pain in her bruised shin to win the downhill and take bronze in the super G at last year’s Vancouver Games.
Vonn was joined by two teammates in the top 10: Julia Mancuso followed her silver in super G with a sixth-place finish and Laurenne Ross of Klamath Falls, Ore., was 10th, for the best result in her rookie season – in the biggest race of the year.
Another American, Leanne Smith, was fast on top before losing control, braking just before touching the nets, and Stacey Cook was 25th.
The other U.S. racers have been looking on curiously as U.S. women’s head physician William Sterett administered protocol tests on Vonn several times daily for the past week.
“I’ve taken more tests than I had in high school,” Vonn said, recounting how she is checked each evening, morning, after inspection and after her prerace warmup. “I’m not taking any unnecessary risk or chance and we’re doing it the safe way and that’s the only way to go in this situation.”
Vonn has full faith in Sterett, who first operated on her when she was 13.
“From a medical standpoint it seems like the system worked,” said Sterett, the chief of surgery at Vail Valley Surgery Center.
Still, some observers have been questioning whether Vonn should have been skiing while still reporting head problems.
“Who in their right mind would clear you to race?” wrote injured Canadian downhiller Kelley Vanderbeek in her online CBC blog. “I worry not only for the athletes’ well being (it’s their choice to take such risks), but the culture it continues to feed; a culture where concussions are overlooked and athletes feel unwilling to admit and properly deal with brain injuries.”
U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association president and CEO Bill Marolt is confident that the situation is being handled properly.
“When you’re dealing at high-level athletics it doesn’t matter if it’s skiing or football or basketball or baseball or whatever it is, in the championship moments you always have difficult issues, and you have to manage them and make the best decisions for the athletes and move on,” said Marolt, the former University of Colorado athletic director.
Vonn now has to decide whether to enter the technical events of giant slalom and slalom.
“I’m going to talk with my doctors and talk with my husband tonight and tomorrow and we’ll try to make a decision shortly,” she said.
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