Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn suffered a partial tear to the ACL in her surgically repaired right knee during a crash while training at U.S. Ski Team Speed Center at Copper Mountain Tuesday.
“It’s always disappointing when any athlete gets injured,” women’s speed team head coach Chip White said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I love the sport, but I hate the sport when anybody gets injured.”
With 77 days remaining before opening ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Vonn’s ability to return to competition in time may be in question.
Doctors and ski team officials have yet to reveal the extent of the tear.
In an email describing the injury, Vonn’s publicist, Lewis Kay, said that Vonn “sustained a mild strain to her right knee, a partial tear to her right ACL, minor facial abrasions and scapular contusions (bruised shoulder) from her fall.”
The statement also said Vonn “needs to rest for a few days and then will pursue aggressive physical therapy.”
No timetable has been given for her return to training or competition.
Team spokesperson Tom Kelly said in an email that U.S. Ski Team medical director Kyle Wilkens said Vonn’s return will depend on her response to therapy.
Prior to the accident Vonn was recovering from tears to the ACL and MCL in her right knee, injuries sustained in February during competition at the world championships in Austria.
Team physician and Vail Summit Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Bill Sterett said Vonn had been ahead of schedule in her recovery.
After the accident, Vonn was taken from the slope on a ski patrol sled. She was seen walking with the assistance of coaches at the base of the slope, then reportedly was evaluated by Sterett, who operated on Vonn’s torn ACL and MCL earlier this year.
Vonn returned to snow in September, then resumed downhill training earlier this month.
When asked about the condition of her knee at the team naming ceremony at Copper Mountain on Nov. 8, she said, “I’m doing awesome.”
Vonn’s Olympics hopes?
Vonn had planned to make her return to competition next week at the World Cup races in Beaver Creek after opting out of competition in Soelden, Austia, as a precaution. With the latest setback, Vonn competing next week is unlikely. Considering that this season’s World Cup results are a major factor in U.S. Olympic team selection, her return to the Olympics would also appear to be questionable. However, women’s coach White said there is more to the selection process than this season’s race results.
“Obviously her previous performances come into consideration going forward,” he said.
White had yet to speak with Sterett and did not have a time frame for her recovery, but described Vonn as a “true champion” and had confidence in her ability to recover.
“In general she tends to come back quickly because of her fitness level,” he said.
Of her Olympic chances, he explained that two of the four spots she would contend for are based on this season’s race results, but “two spots are picked on coach’s discretion.”
As one of the most decorated skiers of all time, Vonn’s space on the Olympic team would appear to be secure assuming she can recover in time.
Size of tear critical to recovery
Avalanche Physical Therapy’s Nathan De Graaf, said the extent of Vonn’s tear will be key to her recovery. While De Graaf is not treating Vonn, he regularly works with ACL injuries.
He said some people walk around and can ski with minor tears, but unlike ankle ligaments an ACL does not recover on its own.
“If it’s a small tear, it’s not really a big deal,” he said. “If half or more is gone it’s a big deal.”
ACL injuries are graded in three categories he said. Grade 1 is a stress or strain, Grade 2 involves some degree tearing and Grade 3 is fully torn.
He described a partial tear as a “gray area” with a wide range of severity and said recovery will depend on the stability of Vonn’s knee in its current condition.
Describing Vonn and other elite athletes — like NFL star running back Adrian Peterson, who returned from a full ACL tear in nine months — as special circumstances because of their higher fitness levels, De Graaf said, “for any normal patient who came through the door I’d say four to eight weeks off.”
White echoed De Graaf’s sentiments on elite athletes.
“The one thing that’s fortunate about Lindsey is her extreme level of fitness,” he said.
The next few days should reveal more on the extent of her injury.
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