Champion skier Lindsey Vonn this weekend acted the way NFL players used to act: She returned to the “field,” so to speak, while still not fully recovered from a concussion.
New York Times sports writer Alan Schwarz, the paper’s concussion expert, did an analysis, headlined “Ski Team’s Protocols Fail Vonn,” of her recent experience with brain injury. Vonn opted to race in skiing championships in Germany, and came in second.
Essentially, Schwarz was trying to convey what a huge risk Vonn had taken by skiing while she was recovering from a Feb. 2 concussion she sustained during a training run.
As The Times wrote, Vonn 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.”
Roughly a week after her brain injury, Vonn passed concussion tests, according to Schwarz. Those tests gauged memory and balance. So Vonn raced in the super-G at the world championship, placing seventh. During that race, Vonn later said she was “in a fog,” according to Schwarz.
He quoted her as saying, “My head just isn’t thinking fast enough. I can’t process the information fast enough, and that gets me behind on the course. My body is one gate ahead of where my mind is, and that’s not a good way to ski.”
As Schwarz so eloquently put it, “Rarely has any athlete so clearly described the real-time cognitive effects of an unhealed concussion.”
But Vonn was undaunted by her feelings after that race. She rested last Wednesday, took more concussion tests on Thursday and did a practice run, and also did a full-bore run on Friday. According to Schwartz, on that Friday run Vonn “lost focus” halfway down the course.
Despite her mental problems while racing, and heeding the neurological tests she had passed, Vonn raced Sunday and finished second.
“If an NFL player was allowed to compete under those conditions, the team (and league itself) would be roundly flayed for endangering his health,” Schwarz wrote.
He took the U.S. Skiing and Snowboard Association to task repeatedly for saying in press releases that Vonn had sustained a “mild” concussion. The assocation also defended its concussion protocol, saying that its tests were up to date and that Vonn had not shown any symptoms or flunked a test before a race.
Skiing officials defended that protocol despite Vonn’s “subsequent fogginess and impaired balance midway through all three races,” according to Schwartz.
After coming in second Sunday, Vonn said she had made a safe choice to race since she had passed all her medical tests.
But one slip, one bad move, caused by her concussion could have destroyed Vonn and her skiing career, which is the point of Schwartz’s analysis. That’s because getting hit in the head while still recovering from a concussion can lead to permanent brain damage.
The bravado of a top athlete should not trump safety, and protecting one’s brain.