As the Olympics unfold without her in Sochi, skiing superstar Lindsey Vonn is hard at work on American soil to rehabilitate her injured right knee, spending hours each week in physical therapy, at the gym and in the pool with an eye toward a comeback.
While serving as an Olympic correspondent for TODAY and NBC Sports for the Winter Games, Vonn gave TODAY a look at her rehabilitation work at the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in Pensacola, Fla.
Vonn, who four years ago became the first American woman to win gold in the downhill event, now devotes four hours a day, six days a week to her knee. On TODAY Thursday, she’s seen working out with ropes, riding a stationary bike and even walking on an underwater treadmill.
Vonn has been frustrated since announcing her devastating decision to withdraw from 2014 Winter Games, but says she is trying to stay motivated and be patient as she looks forward to getting back to the slopes.
“I'm just focused on the next goal, you know,” Vonn tells TODAY. “I'm trying not to think about the fact that I'm not there. I'm just focused on the fact that I will be.”
A year ago, Vonn was injured during a crash at the Alpine skiing world championships in Austria, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in her right knee and fracturing her tibia.
After surgery, she suffered a setback in November in a crash on a training run, and partially tore one of her reconstructed ligaments. She aggravated her knee again in December, and in January, she pulled out of the Sochi Games, saying her knee was too unstable to compete.
Vonn had surgery again last month, and says her rehabilitation this time around has been a bit quicker than before.
“Last time, I had MCL, ACL, and tibial plateau fracture,” she said. “This time it was just ACL and meniscus.” With a laugh, she adds, “Just.”
In addition to the physical work, Vonn says there’s also a mental aspect to rehab.
“I mean, trying to stay positive is not always the easiest thing in the world,” she says. “It's very monotonous work.”
Vonn credits her boyfriend, Tiger Woods, with teaching her the virtue of patience.
“Playing golf, you have to have a lot of patience,” Vonn says. “I mean, it's pretty much one of the most important things to have in the sport. And I'm not very good at that.
“I'm very instinctual and I want to do things right now and I'm pretty aggressive,” she says. “So he just taught me to stay calm and, you know, stay patient. … Focus on one step at a time, one thing at a time, and that's helped me get through it.”
As anxious as the downhill skiing champ is to return to her sport, recovery can generally take four-and-a-half to six months, longer if a patient has other injures or has been previously injured, like Vonn, said Dr. James Carey, director of the Penn Center for Cartilage Repair and an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. (Carey hasn't seen Vonn’s injury or treated her, but could speak generally about ACL injuries.)
A knee is fully functional when the patient regains normal range of motion and strength and can do sport-specific tasks without pain, he said.
“It may take 18 months before the athlete is like, ‘I don’t remember which knee it was,’” Carey said. “It may be 18 months to be an A plus, to be 100 percent, but we think it’s safe to return at six months when they are an A minus.”
Though her knee is still on the mend, Vonn’s competitive spirit is stronger than ever as she looks toward next year’s world championship in her hometown of Vail, Colo.
“The most important thing is to stay focused on the end game, the end goal,” she said. “And that's getting back to the slopes. “If I can motivate myself to come into rehab every day and do what I'm supposed to do, that's gonna be huge in the long run.”