Lindsey Vonn learned at least one lesson during her 11-month absence from the international ski circuit that apparently didn’t come in 12 seasons, 325 races and four overall world cup titles: training isn’t racing.
The 30-year-old American and 2010 Olympic downhill champion is back on slopes this week, thrilled to be competing again and looking forward to Friday’s FIS World Cup season-opening downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta.
“I’m just really happy,” she said after Tuesday’s first training run. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this race, and today was just fun. I have a big smile on my face, and it’s the perfect way to start the season.”
It’s been 11 months since she has skied competitively, but nearly two years since she has been fully healthy. Vonn crashed during the first event of the 2013 World Championships in Schladming, Austria, the super-G, and was airlifted off the mountain.
She tore two ligaments in her right knee and fractured her shin. She was back on the slopes for the world cup nine months later, intent on being ready for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
But in November she crashed in training and re-injured the knee, partially tearing one of the ligaments again. She competed in four subsequent world cup races, but after a downhill in Val d’Isere, France, she knew she needed more surgery. In January she announced she wouldn’t return to the Winter Games to defend her title.
Now, she sounds determined not to make the same mistake again.
“I’m not going to take any excess risk,” she said. “I’m going to save all the risk for the races. And training, I’m going to take it a little bit easier than I normally would.”
Vonn had the 18th-fastest time in the first training run, ninth best among the top 20 starters — usually considered the race contenders — and finished 1.82 seconds behind the day’s best effort by Norway’s Lotte Smiseth Sejersted.
One day later, Vonn improved her result markedly to finish in eighth, 1.62 seconds behind Slovenia’s Tina Maze, who led Wednesday’s training run. Stacey Cook was the sole American ahead of Vonn Wednesday. She finished fourth.
Despite skiing with a brace and wary of having “blown out” her knee twice within 10 months, Vonn doesn’t enter the season with trepidation.
“I feel solid. I feel confident,” she said. “I feel really good. Honestly, I feel very strong right now. I’d say on par for my top years. The difference is, obviously, I’ve had two surgeries, I’m wearing a brace. Things are just a little bit different.”
Vonn has set goals and milestones to reach, such as needing three victories to match and four wins to surpass Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell’s career world cup record of 62. Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark holds the men’s record with 86.
The biennial FIA Alpine World Ski Championships will be held in Vail/Beaver Creek, Colorado, Feb. 3-15.
Despite the attention and expectations of her return to the circuit, Vonn doesn’t feel an urgency to prove much to anyone. The past few years of her injuries, a divorce and a dating relationship with golfer Tiger Woods has given her a perspective that enables her to dismiss others’ demands.
“Over the past few years, with my injury and my divorce and who I’m dating, it’s just so much more clear to me that it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks,” she told USA Today last month. “I almost feel like I have much less pressure than I used to. I’m just focused on my own goals and my own skiing and not worried about what anyone else is expecting me to do. That’s helped a lot. It gives you a little bit of peace of mind.”
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.