WHISTLER — Lindsey Vonn, the star of the U.S. ski team, is in crisis again at the Olympics. This time, though, her team within a team, the so-called Vonntourage, is ready to roll.
From the time Vonn suffered an excruciatingly painful deep tissue bruise on her right shin in a slalom training crash Feb. 2 in Austria, her team of physical and emotional supporters worked around the clock to try to salvage medal opportunities for Vonn, who has been marketed for months as a major star of the Vancouver Games.
"It was instant crisis," says Thomas Vonn, her husband, manager and unofficial coach. "When she got hurt, everything changed."
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Instead of flying back to the United States as scheduled Feb. 4, the Vonntourage remained in Austria — in and around Innsbruck— for three days as Vonn received various types of therapy and attempted to maintain her conditioning.
The Vonns and their staff flew to Salt Lake City on Feb. 7 and then, two days later, to Vancouver, where on Wednesday they revealed the injury, throwing the international news media into high gear.
"We wanted to keep quiet to avoid a firestorm until we knew whether or not there would be a firestorm," Vonn's husband says.
What Team Vonn did and continues to do to prop up Lindsey physically and emotionally is the latest example of the kind of special attention Vonn has received that has taken her from being very good to being the best in the world.
"There isn't any athlete on the World Cup (circuit) that has anything close to what I have," Vonn says.
That might be why on Thursday, Vonn was able to ski for the first time since the crash and, though the women's downhill training was canceled because of snow and fog, she took a successful warm-up run and was thinking she might not have to skip any races. She was scheduled to run all five events.
"I was happy to be back on snow today," Vonn said. "My shin was still very painful, but I feel like the injury is finally progressing. I am always disappointed when a training run is canceled, but in this situation I definitely welcome the extra day to heal."
U.S. skier Stacey Cook crashed before the training run was canceled and was taken by helicopter off the mountain but suffered no serious injuries and is expected to be able to compete.
Weather permitting, Vonn is expected to attempt training runs today and Saturday.
Vonn's first scheduled race is the women's super combined Sunday, though that could be pushed because of expected weather delays. Her second scheduled race is Wednesday's women's downhill, in which she is considered an overwhelming gold medal favorite.
If she can fully recover, Vonn is favored to win two gold medals — downhill and super-G — and possibly add a third medal in super combined, further cementing her status as a skier for the ages.
This didn't really happen for Vonn until the 2007-08 World Cup season, when she went from being the best skier on the U.S. team to having the best team on the U.S. ski team, traveling the World Cup with not just her husband and her ski technician but also a physical trainer and a physiotherapist devoted to her.
Vonn, 25, of Vail, Colo., has become a juggernaut on the World Cup tour, dominating the speed events as she barrels down the world's mountains toward a potential third consecutive World Cup overall title.
She has eclipsed Tamara McKinney and Picabo Street to become the most decorated woman skier in U.S. history.
Building a 'team within a team'
Look at Vonn and see the face of these Games, a seemingly perfect combination of beauty, grace, strength, maturity and competitiveness. On top of all that, the 5-10, 160-pound Vonn, who spent her early childhood in Minnesota, is outgoing and friendly, described as "Minnesota nice."
She has an unusually light touch on the snow, the courage to seek the fastest line, the physical power to hold that line, a dogged work ethic and the perfect downhiller's body, seemingly everything she needs to be the best.
But look behind Vonn and see her incomparable support team and witness what might be the real reason she has become the world's best skier.
See Thomas, her husband since September 2007, a former U.S. ski team racer who has become her fulltime unofficial coach and adviser, traveling to all her races and working alongside the U.S. team coaches.
See Heinz Haemmerle, her veteran Austrian ski technician who previously tuned the skis of two-time World Cup overall champion Bode Miller and Austrian Olympic downhill champion Patrick Ortlieb.
See Martin Hager and Oliver Saringer, the physical trainer and physiotherapist supplied by one of Vonn's primary sponsors, Red Bull, the Austrian company that produces the world's most popular energy drink.
Hager and Saringer have reshaped and fine-tuned Vonn's body and her endurance to the point where she has become the beauty and the beast on the World Cup tour.
Lindsey calls it her "team within a team." Thomas came up with the name Vonntourage.
Shifting into crisis mode
In the past 10 days, the Vonntourage was challenged like never before.
Saringer worked on Vonn around the clock, performing lymph drainage (a type of massage used to improve flow and drainage and speed healing), cheese therapy (wrapping an injury in Austrian topfen cheese, thought by some to promote healing), swathing the shin in castor oil and wrapping it in saran wrap.
"Oliver was basically in charge of healing her," Thomas says.
To maintain her fitness, Hager put her on a hand bike routine instead of her normal cycle training.
The toughest part might have been handling her emotional care. She was, in a word, freaked.
"When she was laying in the snow, she thought her leg was broken," Thomas says. "She was crushed."
Things looks grim, and Vonn feared the worst. A broken leg. No Olympics, after having been shut out of the medals race four years ago, when she competed with terrible pain in her back and hip after crashing in an Olympic downhill training run.
She refused to allow an X-ray.
"She didn't want to know if it was broken," Thomas says. "We all tried to push her to do it. She just wanted to do the therapy and just not know. I thought it was silly, but that's what she wanted."
Turns out the leg wasn't broken, and the Vonntourage is now in Whistler, where it appears there will no shortage of day-to-day Vonn drama.
Behind the scenes, her team will be working overtime.