Realizing that her injured right knee cannot withstand the rigors of Olympic training and competition, Lindsey Vonn withdrew from the Sochi Games on Tuesday.
The announcement ended her remarkable though short-lived comeback from a torn ACL and MCL and fractured lateral tibial plateau suffered on Feb. 5, 2013, at the World Championships in Austria and major knee surgery 11 months ago.
In a post on her Facebook page, Vonn said she was “devastated” not to be able to compete in next month’s Winter Olympics.
“I did everything I possibly could to somehow get strong enough to overcome having no ACL, but the reality has sunk in that my knee is just too unstable to compete at this level,” wrote Vonn. “I’m having surgery soon so that I can be ready for the World Championships at home in Vail.”
Without Vonn, the US team loses the most decorated skier in American history, and the Olympics will be without one of its most recognizable athletes.
Her comeback from injury and her relationship with golfer Tiger Woods have been closely followed. Vonn, 29, regularly updated her rehab progress on NBC’s “Today” show and appeared in celebrity magazines beside Woods. All seemed to be going well until recent months.
Vonn was on track to return to racing in late November, but she aggravated her knee injury during a training run Nov. 19 at Copper Mountain, Colo. Although tests were reported to reveal a partially torn ACL in her surgically repaired right knee, she remained determined to participate in the Olympics and again went to work strengthening her knee.
Vonn returned to competition in early December, racing three times and finishing 40th, 11th, and an encouraging fifth in the Super G at Lake Louise, Alberta.
Despite the re-injury, she appeared back on track for Sochi and defense of the gold medal she won in downhill at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Vonn also took home a bronze medal in the super G in 2010.
But on Dec. 21, her impressive progress came to an abrupt stop during a World Cup downhill in France. She felt her right knee give way, lost her balance, and missed a gate. Vonn acknowledged for the first time that the damage to her ACL was greater than initially reported. She actually had no ligament left. She planned to rest the knee and not race again until January.
Vonn had not been back on skis since that setback, and a few days ago, US women’s ski team coach Alex Hoedlmoser said her ability to compete in the Winter Games was uncertain. With her announcement Tuesday, it was clear she did not have enough time to rest the knee and prepare adequately for the Olympics.
By not participating in the Winter Games, Vonn can have knee surgery sooner and focus on fully recovering for next season.
“In looking ahead, I have every ounce of confidence that Lindsey will be in the starting gate next World Cup season ready to compete,” said US Ski and Snowboard Association president/CEO Bill Marolt in a statement. “She knows the hard work it takes to get to the top and still has significant goals to achieve in what has been an incredible career.”
That career résumé includes 17 World Cup titles and 59 World Cup victories, putting her three behind the women’s all-time record of 62.
Off the slopes, Vonn has become the rare American skier with appeal beyond her sport. Before a “Sunday Night Football” game between the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs in November, cameras caught Vonn and Woods on the sideline talking with John Elway. Her relationship with Woods merited cover story treatment in US Magazine. It will be hard to replace both Vonn’s talent and her celebrity in a sport most Americans typically pay attention to only in Olympic years.
Marolt emphasized that there are other talented skiers on the US women’s team, specifically three-time Olympian Julia Mancuso, who won gold in the giant slalom at the 2006 Turin Games and two silvers in 2010, in combined and downhill.
There is also teenager Mikaela Shiffrin to watch. As the reigning World Cup title winner and world championship gold medalist in slalom, she could be poised to become the next American skiing superstar, especially if she ends up on the podium in Sochi.
For her part, Vonn will be doing what she can to support Team USA during the Olympics.
“On a positive note, this means there will be an additional spot so that one of my teammates can go for gold,” wrote Vonn. “Thank you all so much for all of the love and support. I will be cheering for all of the Olympians and especially team USA!”Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.