With just two days before the Winter Olympics are set to get under way in Vancouver, NBC officials should be celebrating the onset of a much needed prime-time-ratings boost. But now they may be cursing their continuing bad luck. That's because American skier Lindsey Vonn, the blond speed beauty whose quest for five medals over the two weeks of the Olympics was supposed to boost ratings to Michael Phelpsian levels, might be forced to sit out these Games.
Last Tuesday, Feb. 2, Vonn crashed during a slalom training run in Austria and nearly crushed her right shin. "I came down and got twisted funny and went over in front of my skis," Vonn said in front of 100 or so media members during an emotional press conference. "All the force went onto my shin. It's probably the worst place you can have an injury, because you're constantly pushing against your boot, and there's no way around it. You can't pretend that it's not there you feel it in every turn." Vonn has tried to put a ski boot on her foot. "I can tell you it's excruciatingly painful," she says.
Vonn's shin hurts even though she's not applying any pressure. Imagine how it would feel trying to navigate the gates while flying at 60 m.p.h. down a mountain. During the Torino Olympics, Vonn crashed during downhill training and was airlifted to a nearby hospital. Doctors thought she might have fractured her pelvis and suffered massive head trauma. The injuries were not as serious as originally feared, and she was able to race two days later. Alarmingly, Vonn considers this current situation worse. "I feel like, with a back injury, it's easier to push through," she says. "With a shin injury, there's no way around the pain." Is there a chance she doesn't race at all? "Yeah, that's a possibility," Vonn says.
Many sports fans will point to the famed Sports Illustrated jinx for hexing Vonn: the skier got the double whammy, having appeared both on a recent cover and inside the pages of its annual swimsuit issue. But she's just the latest Olympic skier to stumble out of the gate. Four years ago, Bode Miller was the American Olympic cover boy (on TIME, no less). But instead of collecting all the hardware in the Italian Alps, he partied harder than he competed and became a cultural pariah. Vonn is the anti-Bode, happily married to her skier husband and coach, dedicated to not disappointing all the mainstream sports fans who give skiing a quadrennial peek. In a strange twist, if Vonn drops out or drastically cuts back her schedule, the Olympic audience may have to turn to Miller for its violin-tinged tale of redemption. He came out of retirement this season to give the Olympics another shot and prove to the world he's not that bad a guy.
Given all the antics we've seen out of overmarketed athletes in the past, it's only natural to at least wonder if Vonn is overstating her injury to either give herself a built-in excuse for falling short or set up a heroic tale of overcoming injury that American sports fans will devour. Her public personality doesn't suggest she'd ever hatch that kind of plan. And for her part, Vonn laughs off any suggestion that she's playing some kind of game. "Wow, I honestly have never thought of that," she says. "This is no way trying to give myself an excuse if I don't do well. I wish that this had never happened. I wish I had come in here healthy, that I had to deal with all the expectations with a healthy body. That is obviously not the case."
Vonn, who plans to test her shin during a training run on Thursday, says she is refusing to sit for an X-ray: if her shin is broken, she doesn't want to know. That's how badly she wants an Olympic title, the only major prize the two-time World Cup and World Championship winner has yet to grab. Her doctors say they are confident that nothing is fractured.
Unfortunately, her first scheduled event, the Feb. 14 super combined, mixes speed-heavy downhill racing, which won't require many twists and turns on a bruised lower leg, and slalom, which will. The injury may not cost her as much in the two races in which she is the heavy favorite, the Feb. 17 downhill and the Feb. 20 super-G. But if her shin is still sore after those races, she can almost forget about medals in the slalom and giant slalom, which are held during the second week of the Olympics. Yet another heartbreaking aspect of this story: Vonn hurt herself training for events in which she likely would not have won gold anyway.
At this point, Vonn is willing to try anything to be able to compete. Consider: as part of her physical therapy, her trainers have wrapped her legs in cheese in the hopes of taking the swelling down. "I'm pretty much doing everything and anything I can to make it feel better," she says. "And so far, it seems to be working pretty well. It seems to be getting progressively better every day." NBC would surely rather not have the fate of skiing golds riding on a magic slice of cheese, but at this point it may be the best they can hope for.