Lindsey Vonn’s Uphill Battle

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Will the rebuilt right knee of America’s best skier and most intriguing athlete be ready for the Winter Olympics? Stan Badz/PGA TOUR

It’s an audacious stunt fraught with extreme risk: a live performance by an attractive, flaxen-haired female set amidst the peaks of Europe and airing on NBC for prime-time family viewing. But if Carrie Underwood can do it, why can’t Lindsey Vonn?

Yes, that was Underwood in the role of Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, which the Peacock broadcast with much fanfare on December 5. Some critics thought Underwood wasn’t dazzling in this reprise of a Broadway musical that opened in the Eisenhower era, but the show drew 18.6 million viewers. Those numbers – only Sunday Night Football scored higher for the network that week – inspired NBC to re-air the musical in prime time earlier this week. There is something about seeing a pure-as-driven-snow blonde in peril, whether it be from the Nazis or from trolls on Twitter, that compels America to watch.

That’s your cue, Lindsey Vonn.

In two months, God and knee ligaments willing, Vonn will be playing the role of Maria Vonn Trapped on NBC. Sort of. She should be the marquee star of The Games of the XXII Winter Olympiad from Sochi, Russia, and NBC is counting on her to do for its February sweeps ratings what Underwood did for them earlier this month. That is, if Vonn can make it past dress rehearsals.

A Hitchcock blonde originally from St. Paul, Minn., Vonn is the most decorated skier in American history. She is the reigning Olympic gold medalist in the downhill. Also, the six-time defending champion in the World Cup season standings in that discipline, as well as a four-time overall World Cup champion. In what spare time she has, Vonn, 29, dates Tiger Woods, which is on par with that entire Fraulein Maria-Captain Von Trapp affair in terms of notoriety, and she poses in stiletto heels atop coffee tables for Vogue shoots with Annie Liebowitz.

Vonn is what Ron Burgundy might refer to as “kind of a big deal.”

There’s just one problem: Vonn’s right knee. Last February 5, one year and one day before the Opening Ceremony of the 22nd Winter Olympic Games from Sochi, Russia, Vonn suffered a horrific crash at the World Championships in Schladming, Austria. She tore both the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL) in that knee, and fracture her tibial plateau. At the time, Vonn was sailing down the mountain at about 75 mph, in sloppy conditions, and you can hear her whimper in pain as she lays sprawled on the slope afterward.

Minnesota Viking running back Adrian Peterson, the 2012 NFL Most Valuable Player, tore both his ACL and MCL and sat out 226 days.

Chicago Bull point guard Derrick Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP, tore his ACL in April 2012 and did not return to scrimmage for 276 days.

Vonn returned to the slopes in 203 days, in early October.

Beautiful. Fearless. Resilient. How do you solve a problem like Lindsey Vonn?

Last month, while training at Copper Mountain Ski Resort in Colorado, Vonn suffered a partial tear of her surgically repaired ACL. It was a setback, but her Olympic flame has not been extinguished. Still, between now and Sochi, every time Vonn hops on a chairlift, an executive at 30 Rock may light not an Olympic torch but a votive candle at nearby St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Nothing draws bigger prime-time ratings than the NFL, but you can’t air football games after the Super Bowl (God bless NBC for trying, though – anyone remember the XFL?). The Winter Olympics, though not the ratings bonanza they once were, remain huge.

But for whom will you tune in to watch? Evan Lysacek, the American who is the reigning gold medalist in men’s figure skating, just dropped out due to a torn labrum. Telegenic Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones qualified in bobsled, but it remains to be seen whether Lolo’s YOLO spirit will result in LOLs back home. Charismatic snowboarder Shaun White, a two-time gold medalist, returns for his third Winter Games, but the Flying Tomato, 26, has seemed more amped of late about his band, Bad Things, than the half-pipe.

And then there’s Vonn. Honestly, there isn’t another Olympian outside of those four that the average American can name right now.

Vonn raced a World Cup event December 7 to 8 in Lake Louise, Alberta, her first competition since last February’s crash. She finished 11th in the downhill event and fifth in the super-G. Afterward Vonn said that she’d compete in perhaps just one or two more events before joining her Olympic compatriots in Sochi. “I know that I don’t need to push myself and try to push the limits of my knee to race as many as races as I can.… I’m ready for Sochi,” Vonn said then.

Vonn may not, in fact, be ready for Sochi when her events get under way in February. The world’s premier downhill racer is waging an uphill battle against time.

“Climb every mountain,” the abbess famously advised a perplexed Maria when she faced a momentous decision. Lindsey Vonn plans to apply that wisdom at the Winter Olympics… while headed in the opposite direction, of course.

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