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Vonn braces herself for pain in a sport hurting itself

January 7, 2010 | 12:20 pm


Results of the two downhill training runs at Haus, Austria, this week have been reassuring for U.S. ski superstar Lindsey Vonn.

Vonn was 10th Thursday after finishing fourth Wednesday. She is skiing with a brace on the lower arm / wrist area bruised in a Dec. 28 giant slalom crash (video, click here) but the injury is not as much of an issue in speed races (downhill, super-G) as in slalom and giant slalom.

Vonn's two slalom races since the injury ended in an 18th (matching her worst finish in the last 14 World Cup slaloms she has finished; the other 18th came with a brace on her hand after slashing her thumb last season) and a non-finish in a second run after she was 14th in the first run.

Vonn's best chances at Olympic gold are in the speed races. For now, her problem in those disciplines is inability to push with her left arm as hard as she would like at the start, which could cost her the hundredths of a second that often make the difference in ski racing.

"It's not much better than it was before,'' Vonn said after the Thursday training run. "It's a lot easier to ski downhill with a hurt hand than to ski slalom.  The only time it's really hurting me is at the start. Yesterday and today in the downhill training runs, I had a pretty weak start. I was barely pushing and just using my right hand. That definitely helped to conserve what little strength I have in my arm.''

How will Vonn deal with that in the two downhills (Friday-Saturday) and the super-G (Sunday) in Haus? The way she dealt with the thumb injury, which occurred when she was opening a celebratory bottle of champagne after winning DH and super-G world titles last season: gutting it out. She finished the season strong enough to win a second straight World Cup overall title.

"I'm just going to suck it up and just push as hard as I can and deal with the pain,'' Vonn said Thursday. "It's nice that it will only hurt for 10 seconds because in a slalom course, it hurts the entire run.''

Last year's fluke injury ironically turned out to be helpful when this one occurred, because Vonn knew immediately where to go (Exos medical) for a brace. The new version has a cheetah pattern.

"It's definitely a fashion statement, and if you have to wear a brace, you might as well look good while wearing it,'' Vonn said.

Vonn's recent injury occurred on one of the "water-injected'' (translation: rock-hard ice) courses now the norm on the World Cup circuit.  But the number of bad crashes this season has finally awakened ski officials to the idea that the new normal is abnormal.

Hers was the 32nd significant crash on the World Cup circuit this season. They have led to season-ending injuries for Olympic medal contenders like Jean-Baptiste Grange of France, Nicole Hosp of Austria, Kalle Palander of Finland, John Kucera of Canada and Resi Stiegler of the United States. (For a sampling of the crashes and a Universal Sports report on them, click here.)

According to the French sports newspaper L'Equipe, an international ski federation study showed that 30% of the World Cup-level skiers have been injured "more or less seriously'' in the past three seasons. The icy courses, the setup of speed event courses (too many curves where the skis accelerate at the exit) and the high-performance skis have become a recipe for disaster.

Vonn thought her accident had left her with a broken arm that could seriously compromise -- if not end -- her Olympic hopes. That would have been a huge blow not only to Vonn and the U.S. ski team but to a sport hurting itself as its stars go hurtling into netting, hard tracks and potential oblivion -- figuratively and literally in a sport where death-defying never has been an exaggeration.

-- Philip Hersh

(Lindsey Vonn in Wednesday's training run. Photo: Getty Images)