Older, wiser Lindsey Vonn finding less risk can bring more reward

Three weeks ago, when Lindsey Vonn was tearing up the Alpine ski circuit and still keeping her oft-battered body intact, I spoke with her on the phone to gather information for a story to appear before the World Cup finals in mid-March.

We talked about several things.

*The loneliness of months on the road that led her to get a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy, Lucy, now five months old, as a travel companion.

*The slow rebuilding of confidence after her two extensive knee surgeries in 2013.

*The pride she is taking in consistently winning and breaking records.

*Risk management.

The last was a big part of our conversation.  It was prompted by a statement Vonn had made three days earlier, after she finished third in a Super-G at Garmisch, Germany, ending a five-race winning streak in speed events (downhill and Super-G.)  Vonn said that afternoon she had been unwilling to risk everything in tricky conditions (soft snow) to have a shot at winning.

She attributed it to being older and wiser.  It certainly seemed a different attitude than the one that had always led her to go full bore on the straightest and potentially riskiest line down the mountain.

“It’s definitely a more mature attitude,” Vonn told me.  “I wouldn’t say I’m talking a lot less risk but definitely less risk than I normally would in those types of conditions.

“I understand the consequences more.  I’m just not willing to risk three years for a few extra (World Cup) points.”

Ski racing being what it is, with some degree of risk always present, even the best intentions can be undone, as Vonn found out last weekend on soft snow in the Principality of Andorra.

What happened there has led her to the painful and mature decision to end a season in which Vonn seemed headed for a fifth World Cup overall title, her sport’s most esteemed annual prize.  Only one woman, Annemarie Moser Proell of Austria, has won more (six).

 Lindsey Vonn's dog, Lucy, accompanies her after the medal ceremony for a Feb. 7 Super-G  at Garmisch, Germany.  (Christophe Pallot / Agence Zoom / Getty Images)

Lindsey Vonn's dog, Lucy, accompanies her after the medal ceremony for a Feb. 7 Super-G  at Garmisch, Germany.  (Christophe Pallot / Agence Zoom / Getty Images)

A small, high-speed mistake on a Super-G turn Saturday led to what first would be diagnosed as a hairline fracture of the tibial plateau of her left knee.  The knee had given way enough a few seconds later that she slid off the course, lay in the snow for 10 minutes and finally was evacuated to a hospital.

By the next day, after fluid was drained from the area, Vonn felt well enough (and was told risk was minimal) to ski the combined and finish 13th, adding a few more points to her small lead over Switzerland’s Lara Gut in the overall standings.

More extensive MRI examinations Tuesday showed not one hairline break but, as Vonn explained on her Facebook page Wednesday, three fractures “significant enough that they are not sufficiently stable to permit me to safely continue skiing.”

So Vonn made what she called “one of the toughest decisions of my career,” which put the long view – competing through the 2018 Olympics - ahead of immediate gain.

That decision echoed the sentiments Vonn had expressed to me in describing how, at age 31, she has learned to back off when necessary.

“It came from an accumulation of injuries, but the tipping point was my second right knee surgery (late in 2013),” she said. “I was coming back (from surgery several months earlier), getting ready for the Olympics and working my ass off.

“I thought with all hard work, there was no chance it would ever happen again.  I still thought I was invincible, and I wasn’t missing those Olympics.”

But she did, reinjuring the knee and going onto an operating table again.

“That surgery was a lot more complicated the second time,” she said.  “It was a real slap in the face.”

The sting of missing the 2014 Sochi Games became a reality check.  Vonn realized excessive risk might not only end her racing career prematurely but prevent her from skiing recreationally.

“I want to ski the rest of my life,” Vonn said.

An orthopedic specialist not involved in Vonn’s care told me that she would risk early arthritis if the fractures she sustained Saturday were to displace.  The best way to prevent that is to avoid weight-bearing activity for a few weeks and then begin rehab.

In Vonn’s case, that means no skiing, which she had been doing this season at a level near the best of her record-setting career.  She finishes the season having won nine World Cup races (three more than anyone else) and the season title in downhill.

No woman ever has won more World Cup races than her 76.  And she now is within 10 wins of Ingemar Stenmark’s seemingly unapproachable career World Cup victory record.

Whether she gets to 86 likely will depend only on her health.  Injuries have forced Vonn off the circuit in three of the last four seasons - in early February (2013 season), mid-December (2014 season) and now the end of February (2016 season).   That will have kept her from starting 38 World Cup races, including 15 speed events and four combineds.

“Technically, I’m similar to how I was before the knee surgeries,” she said.  “What makes me a better racer now is my experience and my tactics and how I approach every race.

“It’s not all about going 110 percent the whole way down any more.  I’ve had a lot of crashes in my career, and I feel like I am smart enough now that I know where I can take the risk and where I can’t.  I didn’t know that before.”