Lindsey Vonn’s withdrawal from next month’s Winter Olympics has deprived the Sochi Games of the most famous face in the blue riband event of Alpine skiing.
The 29-year-old American broke the news on her Facebook page yesterday afternoon. “I am devastated to announce I will not be able to compete in Sochi,” said Vonn. “I did everything I possibly could to somehow get strong enough to overcome having no ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] but the reality has sunk in that my knee is just too unstable to compete at this level.”
The sport’s celebrities do not come much bigger than Vonn, the Olympic downhill champion and shining star of commercials across the United States, who just happens to be dating world No 1 golfer Tiger Woods.
Her decision to pull out has left a gaping hole in the Olympic schedule and the four-times overall World Cup winner said she was “devastated” to miss out on the chance of winning a medal in her fourth Winter Games.
One of the most marketable and photogenic of winter athletes, with her clean-cut blonde looks smiling out of multiple glossy magazines, Vonn was desperate to compete in Sochi but recently denied being under pressure from sponsors to take her place in the starting hut.
Vonn, 29, is the only active skier with more than 50 World Cup wins – she is three off Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell’s record 62 – but has endured a nightmare year on the slopes.
After sealing her sixth successive World Cup downhill title, a record for either gender, the Minnesota-born skier crashed at the world championships last February and tore both her ACL in her right knee and medial collateral ligament (MCL).
She then aggravated the injury in training at Copper Mountain, Colorado, in November.
An initial return to World Cup competition in Lake Louise in December looked promising, with a fifth place in a Super-G, but the knee let her down in Val d’Isere just before Christmas. “On downhill training runs in Val d’Isere and Lake Louise it held up fine but then on race day in Val d’Isere it didn’t,” she said at the time. “I think it’s really a roll of the dice whether I can do it or not but to be honest I’m mentally tough enough to overcome it.”
Sochi was likely to be her last appearance on the Olympic slopes and there is no question about her mental toughness.
In a sport with a fine line between glory and disaster, Vonn has had plenty of crashes, been in many hospitals and often raced through the pain barrier.
Vonn crashed in training for the 2006 Turin Olympic downhill and was airlifted to hospital but, still in excruciating pain despite miraculously having no broken bones, returned two days later to finish eighth.
At the 2007 world championships, she injured her right knee in a slalom training fall that ended her season. Such accidents, she says, are just part of the job description.
In 2008, Vonn became only the second female US skier to win the overall World Cup, and retained the title over the next two seasons. Injury was again a major concern at the Vancouver Olympics when her involvement was in doubt due to the pain of a bruised shin. In the end, she became the first US woman to win downhill gold and also took a Super-G bronze.
Her success has had a darker side to it as well. Vonn has been through depression and divorce, parental and personal, and years of estrangement from her father Alan, which has now ended.
Vonn, who competed in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics under her maiden name of Kildow before marrying fellow Olympian Thomas Vonn in 2007, had her divorce finalised last year. Her parents separated before the 2002 Games.
Mother Lindy had a stroke when Vonn was born and still has problems with balance which means that she cannot ski herself. Instead, she gives constant support and Vonn said: “Any injury is difficult but something that my mom has always instilled in me is to stay positive and to pick myself back up.
“I’ve always been someone that has fallen many times but I’ve always picked myself back up and this is just one of those instances I’m having. The injury is bad but I am still determined, still optimistic and I’m doing my best every day.”
Sadly for Vonn, her optimism proved unfounded.
Vonn tried to put an optimistic spin on her personal disappointment. “On a positive note this means there will be an additional spot so that one of my team-mates can go for gold,” she said in a statement released by the US skiing team.
“Thank you all so much for all of the love and support. I will be cheering for all of the Olympians and especially team USA.”