When Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn clicked into her skis for the first time in more than six months, perhaps no one was more pleased and excited than Dr. Bill Sterett.
Sterett, head team physician for the U.S. Women’s Alpine Team and complex knee and shoulder surgeon with Vail-Summit Orthopedics, performed the surgery on Vonn’s knee last winter after a devastating crash at the World Championships resulted in a torn ACL/MCL and a fractured tibial plateau, among other issues.
At Vonn’s request, Sterett traveled to Portillo, Chile this week to oversee her return to snow.
“Lindsey was like a kid in a candy store,” said Sterett. “She decided to go out (and ski) on Saturday, the day we traveled all night. She went out at 3:30 in the afternoon. It was the first time she had any snow under her feet.”
Vonn and coach Jeff Fergus were the only members of the team who went skiing that day, performing small foot drills over two runs, with her boots unbuckled.
“And she was as happy as you’ll ever see anybody getting back into it after six months of being off snow,” said Sterett.
When Ski Racing spoke with Sterett on Wednesday, Vonn had put in three days on the hill, skiing just a handful of runs per day and performing basic drills. Each day after skiing, the doctor examined her knee to make sure there wasn’t any swelling, pain or other issues.
“By all accounts, she’s responded perfectly,” said Sterett. “She’s had absolutely no pain with this knee. There hasn’t been any swelling at all. She tells us that she doesn’t even think about her knee — that it feels normal. The only fights we’ve had is she doesn’t want to wear the brace, but she’s wearing the brace right now.”
Vonn has ambitiously stated she would like to get back in gates during this current camp, which is scheduled to continue through Sept. 14. The doctor is not so sure about that.
“For a typical ski progression for an athlete returning from injury, we always talk about increasing volume before we talk about increasing intensity,” said Sterett. “The easy way to look at it is intensity means gates; volume means freeskiing or drills. So we’ve slowly increased her volume from two runs to five runs to seven runs — each time seeing how her knee responds. At some point, we will be introducing some gates once we’ve maximized the volume we want out of her knee, and then we can start to slowly introduce intensity.
“Whether that’s going to happen during this camp or not … Assuming she keeps passing every (step in the) progression, I think there’s a very reasonable chance she’ll be in gates before the end of this camp.”
Sterett said (with a laugh) Vonn is currently much further along in the rehab process than he had both anticipated and negotiated with the four-time overall champ.
“We’ve had a million athletes, especially ski racers, who have torn their ACL, and we have a pretty reasonable expectation for when we can get them back predictably,” said the doctor. “Lindsey had a much more severe injury with the two ligaments, plus a fracture, plus a meniscus tear, plus cartilage damage. When we first started this, even before surgery, we started a process of thinking it would be nine months for a return-to-snow, which meant the October or November camp at Copper.
“At this point, she’s passed every functional criteria. … It surprises me where we are right now.”
Sterett, who has served as Vonn’s doctor throughout her nearly injury-free career, says the star is in the best shape of her life in terms of her upper body, core strength, and she’s virtually identical in terms of her injured versus uninjured leg strength.
“She’s as fit as she’s ever been,” he said.
Asked if he expects Vonn to be performing at 100 percent this winter, Sterett said, “I do. There are a whole bunch of hurdles between now and then that have to be accomplished without any bumps in the road. … There have always been two issues: No. 1, how does the knee respond? And, No. 2, how does her head respond? She’s in as good of a mindset as I’ve ever seen an athlete after an injury.
“She’s not just looking forward to getting back to ski racing,” said Sterett. “She’s looking forward to getting back to winning. She wants to win.”