Commentary

Vonn could be these Games' Kerri Strug

Updated: February 11, 2010, 1:46 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Umm, you might want to hold off on the Wheaties boxes.

Pre-Olympic news conferences usually are dominated by athletes talking about fulfilling a lifelong dream. Lindsey Vonn instead talked about a potential nightmare Wednesday, dropping the bombshell that she severely bruised her lower right shin during a training run in Austria last week and might not be able to ski in the Olympics or, at best, not ski up to her potential. Her voice cracked at times, and tears appeared to well up in her eyes as she described herself as "very emotional and very scared."

[+] EnlargeLindsey Vonn
David Hecker/Getty ImagesLindsey Vonn is using everything from lasers to cheese to speed up the healing process for her shin injury.

Which is nothing compared with how bad NBC feels.

The best female skier in American history (she's on her way to her third World Cup overall title), Vonn was supposed to be the Michael Phelps of these Olympics. Every media outlet has been talking up her chances of winning multiple gold medals. She not only was on the cover of Sports Illustrated's Olympic preview issue last week but also is pictured in a bikini in this week's swimsuit issue, a twin feat that Charles Barkley fortunately never accomplished.

And now, here Vonn is on the brink of the Olympics with an injury so severe she says it would keep her from skiing in any other competition. This is the second consecutive Winter Olympics that America's "It girl" has been hit by injury -- four years ago in Torino, Michelle Kwan pulled out shortly after the torch was lit because of a groin injury.

It also is the second consecutive Olympics marred by injury for Vonn, who had a terrible crash during a training run in Torino that required her to be airlifted from the mountain and hospitalized. As bad as that back injury was, Vonn said this one is even worse because the injured area is constantly pushing against her ski boot and affects her every movement. Just putting on her boot hurt Wednesday. "It's probably the worst area you can have an injury. You can't ignore it; it's right there with every turn."

Plus, there are much grander expectations for her this time.

"[In Torino,] I just wanted to compete. I wasn't really thinking about winning a medal; I wanted to be part of the Olympics and not give up," she said. "It was kind of a different situation, whereas here, I don't want to just compete, I want to win and try to get a medal. There's a big difference there. But as far as injuries, they're both very severe and both very challenging."

Vonn said she is confident the injury is only to the muscle and there is no fracture, but she really doesn't know for sure because she has refused to have X-rays out of fear doctors might tell her the bone is broken. Her treatments have been both modern (lasers) and old-school -- she's wrapping the shin in cheese to reduce the swelling. Seriously. Cheese. Which brings up the enticing possibility of Vonn testing positive for Gouda.

"I'm pretty much doing anything and everything to make it feel better," Vonn said, adding that the cheese is not from the cow she was awarded for winning a downhill race five years ago. It was one of the few times she was able to smile during the news conference.

Meanwhile, the early favorite for most cynical question of the Olympics was from a reporter who asked Vonn whether she was exaggerating the extent of the injury to provide a convenient excuse if she doesn't win a medal. Fortunately, he did not get a chance for a follow-up about whether Vonn also intentionally crashed in Torino to provide an excuse for not winning and provide a chance to study Italy's health care system.

Vonn, by the way, overcame that crash in Torino to ski in the 2006 Olympics. You don't get to be a World Cup champ by being scared.

"I've skied with pain," she said. "I've skied with a lot of different injuries, and to this point, I've been able to ski well with these injuries. All I can hope for is that I'm able to push through it. Knowing that I've done it before gives me a lot of confidence."

"She's a tough girl, and you can never discount Lindsey and how tough she is and how much she wants this," U.S. ski team physician Bill Sterrett said. "I think she's well on her way to looking very good for these Olympics."

The good news for Vonn and NBC is that if she does overcome this injury to win the downhill -- she said the bruise will affect her least in that event -- her story will be compelling enough for fans to consider her an American idol rather than switch channels to "American Idol." She might not be the Phelps of Vancouver 2010, but she could be Kerri Strug. Heck, if Vonn wins, glory-hound Bela Karolyi might personally carry her to the podium, too.

"I've never won one medal of any color in my career. I'm not trying to get five medals. I'm not trying to be Michael Phelps. I'm just trying to be Lindsey Vonn and do the best I can every day," she said. "Obviously, with this injury, it will be even more difficult than I was anticipating, but I'm going to go out there and fight."

That's the attitude. If Vonn comes through and wins because of her guts, tenacity and this marvelous cheese remedy, she won't wind up just on the Wheaties box -- her face could adorn every pack of Velveeta in America.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com