SCHLADMING, Austria — The Olympic champion Lindsey Vonn, whose record-breaking ski racing career has frequently mixed stirring triumph with frightening spills, tore two knee ligaments in a tumbling crash Tuesday and will need reconstructive surgery. Vonn fell in the super-G of the Alpine world championships, a race contested one year and two days before the scheduled start of the Sochi Olympics in Russia.
Vonn, who has won the World Cup overall title four times and has more World Cup victories than any other American, is the defending Olympic downhill gold medalist. Her right knee bent awkwardly as she landed a jump before she somersaulted down the mountain.
According to the United States ski team’s medical director, Kyle Wilkens, Vonn tore the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in her right knee, and sustained a tibial fracture. The team announced she would miss the rest of this season but was expected to return to racing for the 2013-14 World Cup season, which begins in October, and the 2014 Olympics.
Recovery times for reconstructive knee operations vary greatly, but numerous ski racers with multiple ligament tears have returned to the slopes in less than a year — although with mixed results.
Dr. Tom Hackett, an orthopedic surgeon at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo., which has treated many top ski racers, seemed optimistic about Vonn’s Olympic prospects.
“There’s a very good chance she could return at full force,” said Hackett, who is a team physician with the United States Ski and Snowboard Association but who was not briefed on the precise details of Vonn’s injury or her treatment. “Typically, the A.C.L. alone will keep her out six to eight months, at least at the high, intense level of skiing she’s used to. The M.C.L. can often heal on its own. And a fracture with an A.C.L. is commonly a minor component.
“Each case has variables, and they will likely take more tests before there is a real treatment plan. But we’ve had a lot of skiers and snowboarders come back in a year and do very well.”
Tuesday’s race, the first of the world championships, was delayed nearly four hours because of fog. There were more than 10 separate delays as officials struggled to get the race in with daylight fading. Vonn led through the first timed stage of the race; by the second stage, she was trailing the eventual winner, Tina Maze of Slovenia, by 12-hundredths of a second.About 42 seconds into her run, as Vonn made a right-footed turn and arced her skis to the left, she navigated a jump at the same time. Vonn soared above the snow a little off balance with her hands behind her torso rather than in front of her chest, which usually ensures a more stable landing.
Returning to the snow, her right leg splayed briefly to the right and her knee hyperextended inward and toward the left. She pitched forward at the same time and began to flip forward. Her right ski came off, cartwheeling down the slope after her. Vonn came to a stop a few hundred feet down the slope without making contact with the protective fencing, though she did plow through a gate. She was attended by medical personnel for 12 minutes on the side of the trail and airlifted to a hospital.
Vonn missed several weeks of World Cup racing after an intestinal illness hospitalized her in November. After some lackluster performances, she took an extended break from the circuit in mid-December. But she returned about a month later, winning a downhill race Jan. 19 and a giant slalom race the next week.
“I’m really sorry for Lindsey, who took a too-direct line,” said Maze, who watched Vonn’s fall. “I regret her dreadful crash.”
Lara Gut of Switzerland finished second, 0.38 of a second behind Maze. Julia Mancuso of the United States was third, 0.52 back. Mancuso called it “by far the most difficult race in my career.”
Mancuso added: “It was not great conditions on top. It was really soft and the fog started to come, and I didn’t see much.”
Chip White, the coach of the United States ski team, did not question the decision to start the race, which is the first of multiple races across several days.
“It was tough conditions; everybody had it the same,” White said. “Everyone had to wait. Everyone was at the ready for hours on end. It was a difficult situation, but everyone had to deal with the same thing.”
Atle Skaardal, the chief race director, said he saw no reason to delay the race a day.
“There were no problems with the visibility, and the course was also in good shape,” Skaardal said. “So I don’t see that any outside factors played a role in this accident.”
Other top contenders also failed to complete the course, among them Anna Fenninger of Austria and Maria Höfl-Riesch of Germany, who was the skier after Vonn. A course worker fell before Vonn’s run and had to be airlifted off the mountain as well.
Vonn sustained a concussion that sidelined her during the world championships two years ago. She also had a spectacular, harrowing crash days before the 2006 Turin Olympics. With a severely bruised back, she competed days later but did not win a medal. Vonn injured her thumb and broke a finger in a crash in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when she also won a bronze medal in the super-G. Those Olympics began with the prospect of Vonn’s not competing because of a shin injury she disclosed days before the start of the Games.