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Lindsey Vonn's Next Challenge

By Alan Abrahamson | Feb. 05, 2013, 9:30 p.m. (ET)

 Lindsey Vonn skis before crashing while competing in the women's super G event during the Alpine FIS Ski World Championships on February 5, 2013 in Schladming, Austria.

Lindsey Vonn is airlifted off the mountain after crashing while
competing in the women's super G event during the Alpine FIS Ski
World Championships on February 5, 2013 in Schladming, Austria.

Lindsey Vonn ripped up her right knee Tuesday skiing in a race marred by fog and delays at the alpine skiing world championships in Schladming, Austria, and immediately -- for emphasis, immediately -- the clock started ticking.

The Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics will kick off one year and two days from Tuesday.

The logical, reasonable question is whether the greatest skier America has ever produced -- indeed, the star expected to be the brightest U.S. light at the 2014 Winter Games -- will be ready to race next February.

Vonn is not only the defending Olympic gold medalist in downhill and bronze medalist in super-G. She is four times the World Cup overall title winner. She has 59 career World Cup victories, second-most of all time among female racers.

She is, moreover, glamorous and well-spoken and eager to push her sport forward into the mainstream, gracing magazine covers and in demand as a celebrity endorser.

Obviously, no one can predict the future.

But one would be foolish to bet against Lindsey Vonn. It's worth re-tracing now the arc of her career, in particular her singular penchant for spectacular falls and other -- sometimes bizarre -- injuries and equally amazing comebacks. And the mental toughness she has displayed, time and again.

She once said, "When someone tells you that you can't do something, all you want to do is prove them wrong. I feel like when I crash, whether I'm injured or not, I want to come back even stronger and prove to myself I can do it. Maybe it is because I am so stubborn.

"I feel like when you do have injuries there's always a tendency to lack confidence. People don't think you can do what you did before or you can compete at your best. But I take it as a challenge to keep pushing myself even harder. Because unless I can't walk I'm going to be racing."

Tuesday's super-G at Schladming, the first race of the 2013 alpine worlds, was delayed 14 times and ultimately called after 36 racers, only 30 finishing. Tina Maze of Slovenia won; Julia Mancuso of the U.S. took third, the fifth world championships medal of her career, and said it was one of her hardest races ever.

Vonn led the race after the first split; she had dropped back 12-hundredths at the second; she never made it to the third. Instead, she went into a jump slightly off-balance and landed wrong; her right ski came off as she pitched forwarded and somersaulted out, skidding down the snow. She was helicoptered off the course -- standard procedure.

The U.S. Ski Team later issued a statement saying Vonn had torn her anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments and sustained a broken bone, a tibial fracture. It also said she would miss the rest of this season but "is expected to return to racing" for the next World Cup season and the 2014 Olympics.

Speaking generally, the ACL is likely to be the big deal -- probably six to eight months, minimum, before she's back on skis. The MCL and fracture would, relatively speaking, typically be lesser concerns.

The real issue, of course, is Vonn's state of mind once her knee is back together.

This, though, is where she already has genuinely has set herself apart.

This season, for instance, she was hospitalized in November for an intestinal illness. She came back not even two weeks later to win two downhills and a super-G in Lake Louise, Canada. Saying she still wasn't feeling great, she took a break in mid-December. She then won a downhill Jan. 19 in Italy and a giant slalom Jan. 26 in Slovenia, and had come to the world championships saying she was feeling great.

A few days before the 2011 world championships in Germany, she suffered a concussion. Racing when she knew she was not 100 percent, she took second in the downhill.

Before the 2010 Games, she suffered a shin bruise so severe it hurt just to put on her ski boot. That one she helped cure with the help of special cheese. Really. She raced in Vancouver, and became the first American woman to win the Olympic downhill.

At the 2009 world championships in France, celebrating her victory in the downhill, she sliced the tendon on her right thumb grabbing for a bottle of celebratory champagne. She would need surgery to fix the tendon. She duct-taped her hand to her ski pole and raced week after week; that was one of the seasons she won the overall World Cup title.

At Lake Louise in December of 2009, racing a downhill in a snowfall, her knee smacked her chin, cutting her tongue. She almost passed out. She was spitting up blood and photos of her, bloodied, flashed around the world. She won the race by more than half a second. At the Olympics in Torino in 2006, she endured a crash training for the downhill, slamming into the icy-hard snow at roughly 70 mph. There were fears she would be paralyzed. She got out of her hospital bed and finished eighth.

Vonn has spoken about how that episode in Torino made her fully realize how much she loved racing.

Now she has yet another challenge. While she's in rehab, it's perhaps worth keeping in mind something else she also once said: "I mean, everyone falls. That's just life. Whether it's skiing or anything else. It's how you pick yourself back up that defines who you are … And I am never, ever going to give up."

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Lindsey Vonn