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Associated Press photos
American Lindsey Vonn speeds down the Super-G course in Schladming, Austria, before a crash resulted in her being airlifted off the course Tuesday with a torn-up right knee.

Fearlessness left Vonn vulnerable

For a true sense of what happened to Lindsey Vonn, go to the freeze frame.

In real time her crash in the super-G event at the Alpine skiing world championships in Schladming, Austria, was over in a millisecond – it looked like a fireball encased in ice, a blast of snow with a dim figure in the midst of flying white particles doing an unintentional cartwheel.

It was followed by a blank pause on that white alp, and then a sound that at first might have been a lonely goatherd’s yodel-ey-ee-hoo, but turned out to be Vonn wailing over the destruction of her right knee.

Now turn to the still photos – and this is where you really begin to understand the jeopardy of Vonn’s skiing style. They show what we couldn’t see clearly on video: the gasp-inducing steepness of the Schladming run, and what happened to her right leg when a patch of soft snow jerked at her ski as she landed a long jump. The ski buried and stopped dead. The rest of Vonn kept moving downhill at 50 to 60 mph. The result was torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments and a lateral fracture of the tibia.

Vonn has always been a sleek, manipulative thriller who enjoys holding herself and her audience right on the carved edge of disaster. This time she crashed over that edge, and the result was the end of her season and, after undergoing surgery Sunday, a year of rehabilitation with an uncertain prognosis that could keep her out of the Sochi Olympics next winter.

Vonn and her U.S. teammates and associates predict she will be a fast healer – she is a workout fiend who spends seven hours at a time in the gym – but whether Vonn can recover in time for the Olympics will depend on more than just her knee. Her head has to recover, too. How do you regain your confidence after a crash like that?

It helps if you’re not easily scared. Vonn has a built-in advantage: She literally appears to handle fear and anxiety better than other people.

According to Outside magazine, Vonn likes to show off by driving Vail Pass without braking. When the rest of us do something like that, we’re likely to suffer what “Emotional Intelligence” author Daniel Goleman terms “amygdala hijack,” a threat reaction in which an emotional-hormonal surge takes over our brain, bypassing the cortex where rationality and executive function reign. One of the things that can happen in an amygdala hijack is, you begin to scream.

What has made Vonn our greatest American skier, and one of the greatest skiiers ever, is her ability to hijack herself right back, to override the stream of chemical messaging in her brain and stay relaxed on her skis even when she is taking risks. She has always directed the chassis that is her body down perilous slopes as fast as a car, only without the sheet metal, heedless of the fact that she has no more protection than a covering of windproof lycra.

In an interview for her sponsor Red Bull, she once said: “My favorite part of ski racing is the speed. … The only thing I’m afraid of is failure. Skiing is a dangerous sport and I’m not in it to go slow. And if I fall I just get back up and keep going.”

In a statement shortly after she was hospitalized in Austria, she vowed to “work as hard as humanly possible” to be back in time for Sochi.

For those of us who are more easily hijacked by threat or anxiety, it’s hard to relate to Vonn. But if there is an insight we can gain from the way she skis, it’s that comfort and safety aren’t the only worthwhile states of being. Psychiatrists now know that anxiety can be good for us. When the heart beats faster and blood pressure rises and glucose surges in our bloodstream – when we’re challenged – it sharpens our senses and reactions. It teaches our body to perform better.

Vonn has attained what Goleman would call high emotional intelligence. In a way, her quest for speed is an addiction to learning. “When we’re under stress, the brain secretes hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that in the best scenario mobilize us to handle a short-term emergency,” he writes. When we learn “self-regulation,” to recover from stress arousal, “attention becomes nimble and focused again, our mind flexible, and our bodies relaxed. And a state of relaxed alertness is optimal for performance.”

All kinds of healthy byproducts come from meeting threat and challenge head-on. For example, heart and memory function improve. By dealing with it competently, we get a heightened sense of control and accomplishment. It’s literally stimulating.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we all need to drive Vail Pass without the brakes. But it does make Vonn easier to understand, and to admire.

Sally Jenkins is Washington Post columnist. Her columns appear periodically in The Journal Gazette.

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