The hometown fans are generally treated to a much more fleet-of-foot Lindsey Vonn at her annual homecoming event in Vail, but this season, everyone was just happy to see her walk.
Joined by fellow Vail local Mikaela Shiffrin, the four-time overall champ, without the use of crutches, made her way up onto the “Celebration of Champions” platform in Vail Friday evening (although a single crutch was visible behind backstage).
Vonn underwent surgery earlier this winter to repair a torn ACL and MCL. She also fractured her lateral tibial plateau. In her first public appearance since the injury, Vonn reaffirmed that she’s working toward not only competing in Sochi next winter, but competing at the highest level.
Her longtime doctor, Bill Sterett, who performed the surgery and continues to monitor the downhill champ’s progress said the goal for this week is to completely wean her off crutches.
“Once she’s off crutches completely, then we’ll be able to start the strengthening side of things,” said Sterett. “That means for her, whatever we do with the right leg we’ll also do with the left, to help protect it for the next six weeks. So if they’re doing leg presses or hamstring curls or knee dips it’s always going to be double leg rather than any isolation just yet.”
Almost immediately after the surgery in February, Vonn was hell bent on not letting anything affect her life, said Sterett. She was “doing all kinds of upper body core exercises and doing the hand bike and getting her heart rate up and really going at it,” he said. “And that’s what you want to see, that enthusiasm. Now we’re letting her use her legs more for some of the activities.”
Sterett said Vonn won’t put on a pair of ski boots until late summer, presumably shooting for the team camps in New Zealand and Chile.
“We have goals set, certainly every month where we want her to be, and she’s met or exceeded all of those goals just in the first couple months now,” said Sterett. “The goals set aren’t dependent on how hard Lindsey works, a lot of the goals have to be based on Mother Nature and biology, because the new ACL takes a certain amount of time to remodel and get stronger, so we’re trying to structure the therapy so therapy is all done when the graft is ready for her to accept a loaded ski. And we’re doing the therapy in the safe fashion so it won’t do any damage to the ACL.”
For Vonn, the coming months will be characterized by small goals, baby steps toward the larger goal of reclaiming a gold medal in Russia next winter. At no point since the injury has the defending Olympic champ even hinted at the possibility of lowering the bar for next season.
“I’m really excited for Sochi,” Vonn said at the rally in Vail. “I’m really looking forward to defending my Olympic title. I think sometimes being injured make you realize how lucky you are to do what you love to do. I love ski racing; I love winning, and I’m going to represent you guys well in Sochi, and I hope to bring home the gold again.”
Doc Sterett, on the other hand, is now forced to play the role of the “bad guy” who tells Vonn that she’s not allowed to hop on a bike and hammer up and down Vail Pass or that she needs to cut short the autograph-signing session because her body isn’t ready.
“She’s pushing it. She’s doing great. She’s right on track,” said Sterett. “But I can’t let her get ahead of schedule too much because the new ligament just wouldn’t be ready to accept that load. … I know very well she’s going to be pushing me early summer, wanting to get on snow. We’ve had that talk almost every week.”
At the event in Vail, a thousand or more gathered to welcome the champions home. Fans were treated to some fascinating anecdotes, such as the first thing to go through Shiffrin’s mind the day she won the World Championships was, “I have to pee.”
Meanwhile, Vonn was asked what she likes to do in her spare time, but before she could respond, someone in the crowed hollered out, “Tiger Woods!”
Vonn laughed it off and embraced the goading. “OK, guys, I play golf,” she joked.
As for racing against the men, it may not be immediately in the cards, but Vonn’s not taking it off the table. “It’s a little bit political,” she said to the delightfully youthful audience. “The boys, unfortunately, don’t want to get beat by the girls.”
The athletes were also awarded the coveted “Ski to the City” by Mayor Andy Daly.
“It would be unique for a community to have one World Championship athlete, and in this case we have two,” said Daly. “Mikaela, this is a new burden you probably didn’t even realize you had, with all these young people looking at you as they’ve looked at Lindsey for the last few years.”
Emceed by Olympians Chad Fleischer and Kristina Koznick, the event successfully rallied the troops for the coming World Championships in Beaver Creek in 2015.
“I’ve always thought it would be great to be able to race in the middle of the season at home, and in 2015, I’m going to be,” said Shiffrin.
Scheduled from February 2-15 of 2015, the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Vail and Beaver Creek are expected to showcase athletes from over 70 nations, with an estimated 750 million worldwide television viewers and an onsite media and broadcast entourage of approximately 1,500 members.
Story by Geoff Mintz with reporting by John LaConte
Photos by Geoff Mintz and 2015 Organizing Committee