Lindsey Vonn: Ski star returns after ‘hardest recovery of my career’
She has had more than her share of setbacks, but Lindsey Vonn’s fierce determination has driven her back into the World Cup starting gate this week.
The 32-year-old skier returns after just nine weeks off with a broken right arm and nerve damage so severe she couldn’t move her hand.
The downhill and super-G specialist has won 76 World Cup races, the most by any woman, and is only 10 away from the all-time mark set by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Vonn’s stellar career.
The ‘hardest recovery’
Vonn was planning to make her comeback from a fractured left knee at Lake Louise in November, but she broke her upper right arm in training that month at Copper Mountain, Colorado.
Nine weeks later, and more than 300 hours of therapy, the American is ready to race again this weekend in Altenmarkt, Austria.
She said in a “very personal” and “open” video on her Facebook page this week that it was the “hardest recovery of her career,” and revealed the extent of the nerve damage in her right hand.
In the video she has rigorous physio treatment, beginning with trying to wriggle her fingers and stretch her hand before moving onto lifting cups of water, rotating a shampoo bottle, eating ice cream, signing her name and catching a tennis ball off a wall.
Eventually, she takes to her skis and tests her ability to push out of a starting gate.
“Today I am still struggling to do simple things like put on my ski glove and do my hair, but I’m at a point where I am comfortable with my hand in most situations,” she wrote on Facebook.
When asked why she came back so quickly, she told NBC: “I was just going crazy not being able to race. I think that the World Cup title is still a possibility in both downhill and super-G.”
The left knee
Vonn made a flying start to the 2015-2016 campaign after recovering from a broken ankle sustained in off-season training in New Zealand.
In February she clinched her 76th World Cup victory to close to within 10 of 1970s and ’80s legend Stenmark.
“Stop talking about Ingemar,” Vonn told reporters at the time. “I can’t start calculating the numbers because it just gets in my head and it makes it a lot harder than it needs to be.”
The win in Garmisch was also her 38th World Cup downhill victory, taking her two clear of the previous mark of Austria’s Annemarie Moser-Proell.
Vonn suffered a hairline fracture of her left knee in a super-G crash in Soldeu-el Tarter, Andorra, on February 27. However, the following day she raced in the combined event and won the super-G leg.
Vonn then hung up her skis for the season to recover. She had already wrapped up her eighth World Cup downhill title for a record 20th season-ending crystal globe, more than any other skier, male or female. Stenmark won 19 globes from 1975-1984.
The right knee
In 2013, Vonn fractured her right knee and tore her anterior cruciate ligament in a super-G crash at the world championships in Schladming, Austria.
She was well clear in the downhill standings, but overall leader Tina Maze closed the gap to a single point ahead of the World Cup finals in Lenzerheide.
Luckily for the absent Vonn, bad weather forced the race to be canceled and she clinched her sixth downhill crystal globe despite not having raced in the speed discipline since January.
However, she re-injured her right knee twice in late 2013 and was unable to defend her Olympic downhill title at the Sochi Winter Games in February 2014.
Vonn returned to action in December 2014 and quickly made up for lost time.
By January 2015 she had overtaken Moser-Proell’s record for women of 62 World Cup wins.
She claimed super-G bronze at the world championships in Colorado in February, and earned a seventh World Cup downhill title and a fifth super-G crown to tie Stenmark on 19 crystal globes.
The overall wins
Vonn clinched her first World Cup overall title at the age of 23 in 2008 and backed up her all-round dominance by retaining the globe in the following two years.
She added a fourth overall title in 2012, including her first giant slalom victory to become the sixth woman to win a race in all four disciplines. She also bagged a fifth consecutive downhill crown that season.
Injuries have since hampered her quest to beat Moser-Proell’s record of six overall titles.
Vonn competed in slalom in her first Olympics at the age of 17 in Salt Lake City in 2002, finishing 32nd and sixth in the combined event.
Four years later in Turin she added the speed disciplines but could only manage a best of seventh in super-G.
At the Vancouver Games in 2010, Vonn became the first American woman to win a downhill gold and she also clinched a bronze in super-G.
She spent the 2014 Games as a correspondent for NBC News, though she didn’t travel to Russia.
The world championships
Despite her success in other major events, the world championships have not been a happy hunting ground.
Vonn won the super-G and downhill titles in Val d’Isere in 2009 but has been without a victory since.
Three silvers and a bronze complete her medal collection at the biennial championships.
Off the slopes
Vonn is one of the most marketable athletes on the planet, with a brand that transcends her sport.
Her two-year relationship with golfer Tiger Woods from 2013-2015 helped propel her into the limelight, and she embraces mainstream media and social media with gusto — they even announced their split on Facebook.
Despite telling CNN in December 2015 she is “self-conscious” and “pretty shy,” she appeared in Sports Illustrated’s 2016 swimsuit edition wearing nothing but body paint.
And she posed naked in publicity shots for her new book “Strong Is The New Beautiful.”
Previously married to fellow Olympian and US ski team colleague Thomas Vonn, she is now dating Los Angeles Rams assistant wide receiver coach Kenan Smith.