Lindsey Vonn, who won a record 63rd World Cup race last month in Italy, will push out of the starting gate Friday in the downhill at the alpine skiing world championships here, just a few miles from her home in Vail. The race comes three days after Vonn finished third in Tuesday’s super-G, missing the top of the podium by just .15 seconds.
Now 30 years old—a year after missing the Sochi Olympics because of injury—Vonn is back to being the heavy favorite in any speed event. But how?
Here is the scariest thing about Lindsey Vonn, history’s most decorated female skier: After two major operations to rebuild her right knee over the past two years, she may be a better skier than she was before.
Beyond determination and overcoming fears of another catastrophic crash, the secret to Vonn’s comeback may be that she is the latest world-class athlete to find advantages in getting smaller.
LeBron James put himself on a low-carb diet last summer, hoping to enter his 12th NBA season lighter and faster. Tim Duncan was reinvigorated after losing weight in recent years.
After multiple surgeries, American skiing star Bode Miller dropped 20 pounds before the 2014 Olympics. At 36, he became the oldest alpine medalist in history with his bronze in the super-G.
Now Vonn is at least 10 pounds lighter than she was before her surgeries. She weighs 160 pounds, and is leaner, more agile and better able to handle the twists of alpine races. She has five wins in 10 races this season, plus a second- and a third-place finish.
“I’m able to be quicker from turn to turn,” she said in a recent interview.
Though fitness for women, at any level of professional sport is an ongoing endeavour, for Vonn, the weight loss is more unintended consequence than grand design. In fact, she says she is desperately trying to gain weight.
Being heavier can bring major advantages in speed races, since heavier skiers on longer skis glide downhill faster. “I am trying to eat as much as I can,” she said, surely infuriating women everywhere.
Those physics have always been integral to success for Vonn, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist in the downhill and the biggest and strongest of the elite female skiers.
Swiss star Lara Gut is 5 feet 3 and 125 pounds. Put her on a flat stretch of a hill against Vonn, who is 7 inches and 35 pounds bigger, and she has no chance.
Vonn can struggle in the steep and winding sections on a course, but when it straightens and flattens out, no one can match her momentum.
That formula began to change two years ago at the world championships in Austria, where Vonn tore her anterior and medial collateral ligaments and suffered a broken right leg in a crash after her ski got caught in wet snow in the super-G race.
She aborted a rushed attempt to make it to Sochi after she re-tore her ACL during a training run in November 2013.
Lindsay Winninger, Vonn’s physical therapist, set up a rehabilitation and training regimen focused on rebuilding muscle groups that inevitably get smaller after a major knee injury, including the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles.
Vonn was in the gym six days a week in the off-season, working through a grueling series of squats, leg presses, clean-and-jerk lifts, and box jumps, caught on film for her comeback documentary “The Climb.”
To build both strength and endurance, she would hold a tuck position while balancing on a Bosu ball for at least a minute, then repeat that five more times. The idea was “to better prepare that knee for what she is doing on the hill,” Winninger said. See more…