Bill Pennington

The Lindsey Vonn concussion conundrum

Lindsey Vonn nailed down three World Cup season titles in what was, by any measure, a great weekend of skiing -- another chapter in her formidable career. Vonn, racing in Tarvisio, Italy, locked up the downhill, super-G and super-combined titles. She cut the lead her good friend Maria Riesch of Germany holds in the overall points race to 96 -- making it at least possible, if not probable, that Vonn could yet win that, too. Six races remain; the tour resumes Friday in the Czech Republic.

The Tarvisio weekend was capped by a 1-2-4 U.S. finish in the super-G -- Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Laurenne Ross -- and what makes it all the more compelling is that Vonn is back skiing, and obviously skiing well, after a Feb. 2 training crash in Austria that produced a nasty concussion.

Which raises this fascinating conundrum:

Is Lindsey Vonn one more hard fall on the head away from disaster?

Or is what Lindsey Vonn is doing now, with her brilliant skiing, the essence of championship performance?

Her will to compete, well documented after other crashes and spills, is ferocious. Isn't that what separates a champion -- a true champion -- from the rest of us? And isn't that, in large measure, why we watch sports -- to be inspired by the likes of Lindsey Vonn?

In simple terms: by seeing greatness? The rest of us, to reduce this to its basics, can only dream of flying down a mountain at 70 miles an hour.

But should she?

Where does the line get drawn -- and who gets to draw it?

Doctors? The U.S. Ski Team? The New York Times? Lindsey Vonn herself?

The concussion prompted Vonn to withdraw Feb. 14 from the back half of the two week-long world championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

She finished seventh in super-G, pulled out after the downhill portion of the super-combined and then, on Feb. 13, took silver in the downhill. At one point, she said she felt like she was "skiing in a fog."  After the downhill silver, the said she thought it best to rest.

That downhill came with considerable controversy. Some thought she shouldn't have skied at all.

The New York Times' Alan Schwarz may very well win a Pulitzer Prize -- if so, deservedly -- for all he has done to change the national conversation about the effects of concussions on football players and other athletes.

In an "analysis" headlined "Concussion Protocols Fail Vonn," a story that ran the day after the Garmisch downhill, Schwarz made it abundantly plain that one slip and Vonn could have become "her sport's Dale Earnhardt."

He said she and the U.S. Ski Team "appeared to hit the trifecta of concussion no-no's: they called the injury mild, blindly followed so-called concussion tests, then discounted clear signs that her injury remained."

At her first races back on the World Cup circuit, in late February in Sweden, Vonn told the Associated Press that what she called the "tabloid gossip" had gotten to her in Garmisch.

"No one was really listening to what I was saying, either. It was definitely a really hard time for me," she said. "Some people were saying that I shouldn't race because it's too dangerous, and some people were saying that I'm just making it up, that it's not even true. You know, it's like tabloid gossip."

The Times, meanwhile, hardly seems about to let the matter go. The U.S. Ski Team organized a conference call Monday with Vonn. Another first-rate Times reporter, Bill Pennington, who knows both skiing and Vonn, asked three questions -- two of which related to her mental health.

"Hindsight is 20/20," she said. "But I still think we made good decisions. I think we made decisions that were right at the time and I trust the decisions that we made. I got a lot of support from obviously my husband," Thomas, a former ski racer, "and the doctors and I think that is what has gotten me through it.

"But I really think the decisions we made were right. I am happy right now that's over and I can finally put that behind me and I'm looking forward to trying to compete in the next races."

"Not to harp on this," Pennington said, "but there were a lot of people, especially here in the States, that were concerned for you, that were worried you were taking unnecessary risk. What would your answer be to that?"

"I mean, well, I think we made the right decisions, like I said. I think it's really easy for someone to be an armchair quarterback. But I was there. My doctors were there. And we made decisions based on the facts that we had. And, like I said, I think they were the right decisions. So obviously people were concerned but, you know, I had great doctors, great people looking out for me -- we were always, always very careful."

Is "careful" enough?

To be obvious about it, there's nothing "careful" about alpine racing in the first instance. It involves managed risk.

All of life, for that matter, involves managed risk.

As a practical matter, perhaps the U.S. Ski Team ought to re-visit its protocols to ensure they are state-of-the-art.  Too, it ought to seek to join in what the NFL is learning about concussion research and helmet safety.

As for Lindsey Vonn: If the protocols are medically appropriate, and she passes them, and she wants to ski, she should ski. Flat-out. Life is for living.

And if, by the way, Lindsey Vonn somehow manages over the final six races of the 2011 World Cup circuit to overtake Riesch, it would make for an astonishing comeback.

"If I were to win the overall title, it would be the most rewarding, I think, of my career," she said Monday on that same conference call.

It would, indeed, be incredible. Then again, she is an incredible athlete -- the best alpine racer  the United States has ever produced.