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posted: 2/11/2010 12:01 AM

Vonn questions whether she will race at Olympics

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  • Lindsey Vonn

      Lindsey Vonn
    Associated Press

 

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Lindsey Vonn took a deep breath, and her words trickled forth slowly, as she began to discuss the badly bruised and swollen right shin she fears could sideline her at an Olympics many predicted would become her personal showcase.

Indeed, almost anyone with any interest in the Vancouver Games -- fans and competitors, yes, but also Vonn's sponsors and NBC -- must have been taken aback Wednesday when the U.S. star said: "I'm sitting here today questioning whether, you know, I'll be even able to ski."

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Vonn revealed the injury publicly two days before the opening ceremony, and about a week after hurting herself during a slalom training run in Austria, cutting short her preparation.

As a two-time reigning overall World Cup champion, Vonn is considered a contender to win multiple medals and an overwhelming favorite in the downhill and super-G. And as an outgoing, autograph-signing, product-pitching American, she has been positioned as Vancouver's answer to Beijing's Michael Phelps.

For a day, at least, that all was thrown into doubt.

As it is, Vonn sought to distance herself from such comparisons, saying: "I'm not trying to be Michael Phelps. I'm just trying to be Lindsey Vonn, trying to do the best I can every day. Obviously with this injury, it's going to be even more difficult than I was anticipating, but I'm just going to go out there and fight. That's all I can do."

The women have their first official training run at Whistler Mountain on Thursday, and Vonn is expected to try to test her leg then -- perhaps, her husband said, with the help of painkillers or a local anesthetic to numb the affected area.

"We honestly don't know how it's going to respond," said Thomas Vonn, a former U.S. Olympic skier who acts as a coach and adviser to his wife. "We're going to go up and see tomorrow. We potentially could get up there and she could say, 'OK. This works. I can do this.' And it could be not that big of a problem. Or she could get out there with the painkillers and she could say, 'There's just no chance.'"

The first women's Alpine race is Sunday's super-combined. Those who have been around Vonn for years expect her to be in the starting gate, setting aside the agony the way she's done so many times before.

"Knowing her -- her competitive drive -- if anyone could be ready to go when the gun goes off, it will be Lindsey Vonn," U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CEO Bill Marolt said.

Thomas Vonn thinks his wife might wind up sitting out a race or two before healing enough to be able to participate in later events.

"It is entirely possible that she could race in all five events and be fine. It is possible, for sure. I would be very, very surprised if she didn't race in anything," he told The Associated Press.

Still, he called the time since the injury "one of the more stressful weeks we've had ever in our lives ... and we still don't know what the outcome will be."

His wife did her best to smile through all of the camera clicks at Wednesday's news conference, but she also paused and sighed occasionally while talking about the pain in her leg and the possibility of needing to pull out of one -- or all -- of her five events.

She described herself as "very emotional, very scared."

"It's hard to stay positive, you know," said the 25-year-old Vonn, who lives and trains in Vail, Colo. "A week ago ... I was feeling great, I was feeling healthy, I had no problems. And now I'm sitting here today questioning whether I'll be even able to ski. So it's not where I want to be, by any means."

She was in a far better place Jan. 31, when she won a World Cup super-G at St. Moritz, Switzerland, to clinch that discipline title and extend her lead in the overall standings heading into the Olympics. Two days later, Vonn was taking some extra slalom training when she jammed a ski tip, toppled over and slammed her right boot against her leg.

It was the first run of what was supposed to be a three-day pre-Olympics camp. She hasn't skied since getting hurt Feb. 2, and said it's even been arduous to simply put on a ski boot in her hotel room to test the leg. Vonn said the bruising covers about a 6-inch swath -- starting from where the top of a boot rests against her body -- but she refused to have an X-ray done to check whether she broke a bone because she didn't want to know.

"I pretty much stuck my fingers in my ear and just pretended like I didn't hear what was going on. I didn't want to hear that my shin was fractured. At the time, that's what it looked like," Vonn said. "If I fractured my shin, I wouldn't be racing the rest of the season."

Vonn called the shin "probably the worst place that you can have an injury, because you're constantly pushing against your boot."

Other ski racers agreed that even if Vonn does go ahead and compete, she could be limited.

"That's what puts her in her own league (among) the women: She's on the front of the boot, and she really accelerates through the turn," said Canada's Manuel Osborne-Paradis, a medal contender in the men's downhill Saturday. "If she can't do that, then it's going to open doors for a lot of other women."

Trying to speed the healing process, Vonn is having laser treatments and trying a less-orthodox method: wrapping her leg in topfen, an Austrian curd cheese, to ease the swelling. She's taken anti-inflammatories, but said she hasn't tried pain medication, meaning "there are still things that we can do."

Like most elite Alpine ski racers, Vonn is no stranger to injuries. Nor would it be anything new for her to try to shut one out while speeding down a slope.

"I've always been able to persevere," Vonn said. "I won't really know until tomorrow, when I actually get on skis, and they can actually assess the situation and see how bad it is."

At the 2006 Turin Olympics, she took a harrowing spill at somewhere around 50 mph in training, a fall that bruised her back and sent her to the hospital. Less than 48 hours later, Vonn -- then known by her maiden name, Kildow -- finished eighth in the downhill.

This season, she lost control during a World Cup giant slalom in Austria in late December, thudded to the ground and worried she had broken her left wrist. It turned out it was a bad bruise, but Vonn was right back out there racing in a slalom the next morning, wearing a brace to protect the tender arm. Less than two weeks later, she was stringing together a three-race winning streak.

In early December, Vonn's knee slammed into her chin as she sped down a downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta, making her teeth chomp on her tongue, causing blood to pour out of a corner of her mouth as she crossed the finish line.

"She's a tough girl," said Bill Sterett, a U.S. Ski Team doctor who first treated Vonn when she broke her leg at age 13. "I think you can never discount Lindsey and how tough she is and how much she wants this."

The U.S. Ski Team and USOC knew about Vonn's injury last week, but otherwise she kept the bad news mostly to herself until Wednesday, hoping against hope her shin wouldn't keep hurting so much. Even her mother didn't know about the injury until seeing Vonn initially disclose it during an interview with NBC's "Today" show that was taped Tuesday night and aired Wednesday morning.

"This is in no way trying to give myself an excuse if I don't do well. I wish that this had never happened. I wish that I was coming in here healthy, and that I had to deal with all the expectations with a healthy body, but obviously that's not the case," Vonn said.

"I know that I've given it everything that I have," she added, "and you can be sure that when I'm in the starting gate -- if I'm in the starting gate -- that I will be out there to win."

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