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Philip Hersh: Vonn shakes cobwebs, wins silver in world downhill [Updated]

February 13, 2011 |  9:42 am

Lindsey Vonn has won everything -- Olympic gold, world championship gold, World Cup titles, more World Cup races than any U.S. skier in history.

So second place at a major event should be no big deal to her.

But there was a good reason why Vonn said the silver medal she won in Sunday's World Championships downhill  "feels like a gold.''

LV  Just a few days ago, the concussion Vonn suffered in a Feb. 2 training crash had left her wondering whether she should risk racing again in the biennial world meet at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

After all, it's hard enough to hurtle down an ice-injected hill at 70 mph with all your faculties, let alone with a few cobwebs in the head.

[Updated 1 p.m.:  Which raises the issue of whether she is using her head or just being bull-headed by continuing to race with lingering effects of the concussion.

"Medically speaking, I'm doing what the doctors are telling me,'' she said Sunday in a conference call with U.S. reporters. "Every day, I'm feeling better, but I'm still having some symptoms in the race.'']

Doctors cleared Vonn to defend her 2009 Super-G title last Tuesday, but she lacked the confidence to go all out and wound up seventh. 

"I still don't have the concentration, agility and mental quickness to ski the way I am accustomed to,'' Vonn wrote Tuesday on her Facebook page.

 Then she tried the downhill leg of the combined Friday but decided to skip the slalom leg and still was uncertain about what to do.

 She felt good enough Sunday to defend the downhill title and wound up just forty-four one-hundredths of a second behind Austria's Elisabeth Goergl, who has matched Vonn's 2009 feat of double gold in the speed races, Super-G and downhill.

"I couldn't be happier,'' Vonn said about winning her fifth career world championships medal.

["I have had a rough couple weeks,'' Vonn said. "This injury has been really tough for me. I wasn't 100 percent today, but I'm really happy with the silver medal.''

Vonn actually has had a rough ride all season in terms of crashes that tweaked her knees and could have caused serious injuries.  But none has affected her like the concussion.  And, just to give her more of a headache, some European media have questioned whether this injury is real since she has continued to ski fast -- if not her fastest -- with it.

"They think I'm just making it up and am really not injured,'' she said. "If you look [at video of the Feb. 2 crash], I definitely hit my head, and I definitely am injured. I'm trying to explain my story and just tell people how I feel, and I guess some people don't believe me.''

Vonn said she has been taking a series of concussion-related tests every morning and skis only after the on-site team medical staff, including Dr. William Sterett, an orthopedic surgeon, says she has passed them. While saying she feels fine in normal activities, Vonn admitted the concussion still is having an impact when she races.

"I struggle maintaining focus from top to bottom,'' she said. "I'm still have issues about three-quarters of the way down. I don't have the concentration I need. I'm not able to ski the way I want to. I just become more passive.

" 'I wouldn't say I'm afraid. I'm just not as self-confident as I normally am.''

Vonn declined to elaborate on details of what symptoms precipitate the focus problem. She admitted a slip near the end of Sunday's race could be attributed to the declining concentration. 

"In general, I had a harder time with [course] bumps,'' she said. "When I start to lose focus, it becomes really difficult for me to stay shead of the course, so to speak. The bumps tend to throw me around.  I almost went down there.'']

 Vonn said she was unsure about skiing any of the final three races at worlds -- the team event, giant slalom and slalom. The team event has yet to gain any traction since being introduced at worlds in 2005, and the GS and slalom are Vonn's weakest disciplines.

[There also the question of why she has raced at all, knowing another head impact while she is recovering from a concussion could lead to a more damaging injury. She said the doctors have outlined the risk for her.

"I am fully aware [of the dangers],'' she said. "I realize the risk is very high, but I think we have made safe decisions. I passed every test along the way. It's a tough situation because I'm [only] getting symptoms while I'm skiing.''

After the medical staff has cleared her, Vonn said, "ultimately it's my decision. I'm stubborn. I'm a competitor. I never can say no.''

Vonn did not rule out the possibility of not racing again this season.

Rest may help her before the World Cup season resumes Feb. 25. Trying to win a fourth straight World Cup overall title, she currently trails Germany's Maria Riesch by 156 points in a scoring system where a race victory earns 100, with points awarded on a sliding scale down to 30th place.

"I'm definitely unsure about what I should do next,'' she said. "How can I feel 100 percent again? The only answer is to take time off, but it's really hard to do when you are at a world championship event. My goal for the next coming weeks is to finish the season strong and try to defend my title the best I can.'']

 --Philip Hersh

Photo: Lindsey Vonn flashes a golden smile after winning silver in Sunday's downhill at the World Championships. (Odd Andersen / Getty Images)