How Lindsey Vonn Fought Her Way Back From Career-Threatening Injuries
Lindsey Vonn will hit the slopes at the 2018 Olympics, but the 33-year-old's road to Pyeongchang hasn't been easy. Along with 80 World Cup victories and two Olympic medals, she's racked up two injuries that threatened to end her career. Here, Vonn recounts how she recovered, physically and mentally, to come back stronger than ever.
I’ve always been very goal-oriented—in my career and in life in general. I happen to be the kind of person who pushes the limit at all time, whether I'm skiing or driving a car. So it's hard for me to tell if I’m ever pushing myself too far. I crashed at the World Championships in 2013, tearing my ACL and MCL and resulting in a tibial plateau fracture. That was the start of a long list of injuries. But I fought my way back, and I definitely felt ready for the Sochi Olympics in 2014—until I re-tore my ACL right before the games. I tried to continue skiing on it, which didn't go well. Eventually, I created more damage, which led to the hardest two-year span of my career, as I worked my way back to being able to walk, and then ski.
It was devastating to miss the Sochi Olympics after I had already fought so hard to come back from the same injury. It was pretty depressing, and it was hard to climb out of the place that I was in. It was really the thought of skiing and being on the mountain again that kept me going, and I worked hard to get back there. I don’t know where I would’ve ended up if I didn’t have that goal.
After a lot of physical therapy, I was able to ski again. But that wasn't the end. Less than two years after getting back on the slopes, I crashed again in November 2016, this time resulting in a spiral fracture of my humerus, with nerve damage. I had no feeling in my hand for several weeks. It was probably the scariest injury I've ever had, because no one could tell me if I would regain function of my hand. I couldn't write; I couldn't spell my name; I couldn't eat food; I couldn't even brush my hair.
It was really hard to stay positive, but I was lucky to have a lot of support from friends and family. My sister was there with me for surgery and really took care of me, putting me to bed and making me food. My physical therapist, Lindsay Winninger, would drag me out of bed when I didn't feel like I could do it. I was just so down. I ended up getting a dog, Leo, who had been hit by a car. He had a knee problem too, so we were companions.
When you’re coming back from an injury, you have to focus on the small steps and the little victories. It’s too frustrating to think long-term. Some days are better than others, and it's a lot easier to manage, mentally, when you focus on the moment. There's not a lot you can do right after surgery, so it's mostly range of motion exercises and manual therapy at first. As you progress, you start to work on strength. After my arm injury, I would spend five hours a day working on range of motion and just trying to get the feeling back in my hands. I spent a lot of time in the hot tub, because it increases circulation to the nerve and I was trying to get my fingers to activate. Some days, my goal would be just to bend my index finger and I would sit in the water, concentrating on moving it.
Even when the rehab wasn’t that physically taxing, it was always very mentally taxing. You're putting everything you have into it. Ever since my first injury, my goal has always been to come back stronger than I was before. Of course, with injuries, you never know if you’ll be able to do that. But I was persistent and I never gave up, and that helped me get back to the top. Physically, it's definitely taken it's toll on my body. It's a constant struggle. But my injuries made me so much stronger as a person—I’m much tougher mentally than I was before.
In January 2017, I was finally able to ski again and think about training for the 2018 Olympics. Now, I have to warm up my knee every morning, and if I want to train hard, I have to make sure that I’m taking care of my past injuries. I’m always thinking about it.
I'm definitely more aware of my body and what it's capable of now than I was before. I know what I should and shouldn't do. This summer, I was doing two physical therapy sessions a day, five or six days a week. Once I started skiing again, I was doing three to four hours in the morning and then working out for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Now that I'm in race season, I try to get at least two lifts in a week. There's never really a day where I'm not doing something—I’m either racing, skiing, in the gym, or recovering in the afternoon. There's not a lot of time off in the season.
When I’m not training or skiing, I spend time with my dogs. They’ve had a huge, positive impact on my recovery and my life in general. Two years after I got Leo, I got another dog named Bear. Now, I travel with my little King Charles named Lucy. She helps me relax on the road, which is the hardest time for me. You're always around people, but at the end of the day, you're in your hotel room and you're alone—which is pretty depressing. So having her around kind of helps me relax, and then every hotel feels like home because she's there. I usually watch Law & Order, especially if I'm having a bad day. For some reason it just makes the world better, and then I feel better.
I believe that everything happens for a reason, and I know I'm going to make it to these Olympics and that everything's going to turn out the way it's supposed to. Still, ski racing is an inherently dangerous sport. No matter how much I try to be careful and safe and not take too many risks all the time, it's still dangerous. That's part of the job, and I know it's a possibility. I'm 99 percent sure this year is going to be my last Olympics. My body's been through the wringer, and I'm not sure how much longer I'm going to be able to ski. But I'm going to try to keep skiing as long as I can. I’m constantly inspired by someone like Roger Federer, because a lot of people wrote him off when he was dealing with injuries a few years ago. They all thought he was done, but he came back and he has 20 Grand Slam titles. I still have a lot left in me, too.
Through all the ups and downs of my career, my injuries have made me much stronger than I’d be if I had continued winning without any obstacles. Adversity really makes you appreciate everything that you have—and I'm truly lucky to be able to ski and to do what I love every single day.
—As told to Samantha Simon