It wasn't much of a ski outing: a few cautious turns under the watchful eyes of U.S. Ski Team coaches. But Lindsey Vonn's return to snow this past weekend in Portillo, Chile, signaled a vital milestone in her comeback from a horrific crash last winter that ended her World Championship season and set her on a new timetable to defend her Olympic title in Sochi next February.
Ski racing carries its share of risks, as does any sport. A hallmark of great champions is the perseverance and drive to come back. Phil Mahre's return to win Olympic silver in Lake Placid in 1980 just 12 months after shattering his ankle was miraculous. Bode Miller's two silvers in Salt Lake City came just a year after suffering a severe knee injury at the 2001 World Championships in St. Anton, Austria. Vonn's own hero and mentor Picabo Street went through many comebacks but none as heroic as the return from a knee injury resulting from a training crash in Vail 14 months before winning Olympic gold at Nagano in 1998.
Vonn herself has been through her fair share of bumps and bruises an ankle injury before Vancouver, a concussion prior to the 2011 World Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a downhill-training crash in 2006 that earned her a helicopter ride to a Torino hospital. But none compared to the road she faced over the last seven months after a terrifying crash in the World Championship super G in Schladming, Austria.
All had their impact, but all were roadblocks she could overcome in the short term.
"It is weird to think it's been seven months," said Vonn from the South American training camp. "It really doesn't feel like it's been that long to me. It just feels like it's the right time and my body feels ready. My coaches and my doctor were a lot more uneasy than I was. I was really excited.
"I had absolutely no fear whatsoever. I was just really excited to get back out there."
One of the world's most recognizable sport stars, Vonn has very much remained in the spotlight these past seven months, accompanying friend Tiger Woods around the tour amidst paparazzi and much public fanfare. Meanwhile, the private Lindsey Vonn was in the gym every single day!
There's an axiom that physical conditioning is the backbone of any successful athlete. Lindsey Vonn is the poster child. Six-, seven-, eight-hour days training are not unusual for the Olympic champion. For the jet-setting Vonn, that means finding gyms on the road. It means long days working out at home in Vail and trips to the USSA Center of Excellence in Park City for physical testing.
The world has seen a lot of Lindsey Vonn the past seven months. But what they haven't seen are the hours of sweat, pain and determination to get back. It was a singular focus that is still far, far from complete. But the easy turns she made in Portillo spoke volumes.
"My coach had to try to calm me down," she laughed. "I wanted to go straight right away. But he made me do beginner drills. I usually go from zero to a hundred, I'm not good in between. So this is going to be a challenge."
It's still early and Vonn has no set plan for return to racing. This camp with her U.S. Ski Team teammates is more about getting the feel back for snow. She'll hit it harder next month in Europe and back home at Vail in November. She'll face decision points on when to return.
But amidst it all, the red-letter date circled on her calendar will be Friday, Feb. 7, when Vonn plans to march into the stadium in Sochi ready to defend her Olympic downhill title.