There was a moment of confusion at insidethegames headquarters yesterday when we noticed the name of Lindsey Vonn listed as the 13th placed finisher at the Alpine Combined World Cup leg in Soldeu-El Tarter in Andorra.
Surely not, we thought? Wasn’t she taken to hospital just the previous night with a season-threatening knee injury after coming off second best in a high-speed collision with a fence during the super-G? A “pretty substantial fracture in her tibial plateau," it turned out, as she pointed out herself on Facebook. How could she possibly have recovered in time?
But recover she had. After beginning the day by having fluid drained from her knee, the 31-year-old fought through the pain barrier and, wearing just a simple brace for protection, took on the mountain again, twice. Not only that but she had finished top of the leaderboard after the super-G leg, losing touch only in her less favoured slalom, an event she does not usually compete in.
"No-one can ever call me a wimp," tweeted the American afterwards.
It has been a busy few weeks for Vonn. She made a fleeting visit to Lillehammer to fulfil her ambassadorial role at the Winter Youth Olympic Games, acting as a source of inspiration and role model for teenage athletes as she told them about what it takes to make it at the top level.
Later on that very same day she appeared in a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition wearing only body paint. An interesting example to set to Youth Olympians, we thought, as was a swiftly deleted Facebook post a few days later in which she smashed her sponsored skis with a hammer after a binding detached mid-race.
Some would say that risking further harm by competing injured was another ill-judged move. Yet Vonn was also continuing a rich tradition of sportspeople heroically fighting through the pain barrier.
It is up there with the plucky underdog or the veteran coming back for one golden swansong as the most feted sporting storylines. There is something gloriously heroic about a bloodsoaked soldier, injured in the line of duty but gallantly battling on for one last assault.
It says a lot about the England football team that two of their biggest World Cup successes in recent decades have come by virtue of a “heroic” 0-0 draw in the final match of qualification. The first of these, against Sweden in 1989 to secure a spot at Italia 1990, is best remembered for central defender Terry Butcher suffering a deep cut to his forehead early in the game. After some impromptu stitches on the side of the pitch, Butcher returned to the fray swathed in bandages and promptly put his head in the way of the ball whenever and wherever he could.
By the final whistle, the bandages had disintegrated and the cut reopened to the extent that his white England shirt was red with blood. Eight years later, central midfielder Paul Ince was left in a similar state after a goalless draw with Italy had secured his country a berth at France 1998.
“Whatever happened to the battle-bruised England footballer shedding blood in the service of his country?” shrieked a nostalgic Daily Telegraph headline in 2013.
Players from other countries have proved capable of similar heroics. Manchester City’s German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann famously broke several vertebrae in his neck when he collided with Birmingham's City’s Peter Murphy at the 1956 FA Cup final at Wembley, playing on unaware of the seriousness of the injury as his team ran out 3-1 winners.
His compatriot Franz Beckenbauer, the only man to captain and coach his country to World Cup victory, refused to be substituted and played for 120 minutes with his arm in a sling after injuring his shoulder in West Germany’s thrilling 4-3 loss to Italy in the semi-finals of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
Look beyond football and there are some remarkable examples across virtually every other sport, including Olympic ones.
Take Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto, for example. He helped his country win the team gold medal at Montreal 1976 after breaking his kneecap during the floor exercise. He scored 9.5 points on the pommel horse and 9.7 on the rings, despite dislocating his broken kneecap on landing and tearing ligaments in his right leg, collapsing in agony but only after he had raised his arm in a perfect finish.
In a similar vein, American Manteo Mitchell ran the first leg his 4x400 metres relay at London 2012, completing his lap in 46.1sec despite breaking his leg at the 200m mark. He earned a silver medal as his team-mates placed second in the final.
Two decades earlier, fellow 400m runner Derek Redmond of Britain had been less successful when tearing his hamstring during the Barcelona 1992 semi-final. He managed to finish, but only after his father vaulted the barrier and virtually carried him across the line.
Britain’s racewalker Chris Maddocks competed as a 43-year-old in the gruelling 50 kilometres walk at Sydney 2000 despite injuring his hamstring a week before the race. He hobbled home in agony in 39th place in a time of 4 hours 52min 4sec, almost 70 minutes behind Polish winner Robert Korzeniowski, expecting to arrive into an empty stadium. But unknown to him, the crowd had been urged to stay behind to watch him and almost 100,000 remained in their seats as The Proclaimers’ I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) blared over the loudspeakers.
It needs to be said that younger athletes remain capable of similar feats, even in our supposedly closeted professional world of today. Australian sports fans are more used to cheering when an English “pom” is left battered and bruised after an Aussie assault. Not so Sam Burgess, who, before making a short-lived switch to rugby union in time for last year’s World Cup, sealed a place in Sydney folklore as he inspired the South Sydney Rabbitohs to their first National Rugby League title in 43 years, producing a man of the match performance in their victory over the Canterbury Bulldogs. He did so after breaking his cheekbone in the opening seconds.
Welsh cyclist Geraint Thomas produced another heroic team moment during the 2013 Tour de France when he battled on in support of team leader, and eventual winner, Chris Froome, despite breaking his pelvis in the opening stage. And, while less of a team player, golfing superstar Tiger Woods - a future beau of Lindsey Vonn, of course - won the US Open despite playing with a left knee missing an anterior cruciate ligament and, as it turned out, two stress fractures of his left tibia.
Many of these examples are pure madness. Surely it would be better to take the safe option and to prioritise a long-term career over short term gain? Look at the risk of concussions in collision sports, for instance…
But, on the other hand, there is something gloriously wonderful about battling on in the face of adversity, and Vonn’s performance this weekend was only adding to a long list of heroic sporting performances.