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Skier Lindsey Vonn Withdraws from Sochi Olympics

Recognizing 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 Championship in Austria. In a post on her Facebook page, Vonn said that she was “devastated” not to compete in Sochi.

“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 in the statement. “I’m having surgery soon so that I can be ready for the World Championships at home in Vail.”

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Without Vonn, the US team loses the most decorated skier in American history and the Olympics will miss one of its most recognizable athletes. Her comeback and 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 besides Woods. And all seemed to be going well until recent months.

Vonn was on track to return to racing in late November, but she re-aggravated her knee injury during a training run on Nov. 19 at Copper Mountain, Colorado. Although tests revealed 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 5th in the super G in Lake Louise, Alberta.

Despite the partial tear, 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.

Then, 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. After clutching her right knee in pain, 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 her setback on Dec. 21 and a few days ago U.S. 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 adequately prepare for the Olympics.

By withdrawing from the Winter Games now, Vonn can have knee surgery sooner and focus on fully recovering for next season and February’s World Championships in Colorado.

“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 U.S. Ski and Snowboward Assocaition president and 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 resume 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 Monday Night Football game between the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs, cameras caught Vonn and Woods on the sidelines 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 only pay attention to in Olympic years.

Marolt emphasized the other talented skiers on the US team, specifically pointing out veteran and three-time Olympian Julia Mancuso who won gold in the giant slalom in at the 2006 Turin Olympics 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 champion gold medalist in slalom, she appears poise to become the next big 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 Olympics in February.

“On a positive note, this means there will be an additional spot so that one of my teammates can go for gold,” wrote Vonn of her withdrawal. “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 shira.springer@globe.com.

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