U.S. skier Shiffrin, 17, makes history in World Cup race

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Ever heard of Mikaela Shiffrin?

If you don’t closely follow Alpine ski racing, your answer is probably a no. But now is the time to start reading up on this 17-year-old Alpine skiing phenom.

At 17 years, 9 months and 7 days, Shiffrin became the third youngest American to ever win an Alpine World Cup race on Thursday after claiming victory in a slalom race in Are, Sweden.

Shiffrin is from Vail, Colo., and attends Burke Mountain Academy, a private school in East Burke, Vt. that teaches both academics and ski racing. Shiffrin made her World Cup debut in March 2011. Later that year she raced in another World Cup event and finished eighth in the slalom. A year ago, Shiffrin placed third in a slalom race at Lienz, Austria. Last March, she won the slalom at the U.S. National Championships – after doing the same at the 2011 Nationals.

So yeah, it’s probably time to start paying attention to this talented teenager.

When asked about her victory, Shiffrin had this to say (courtesy of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association): “I was just trying to fly. I couldn’t imagine what winning [a World Cup race] would feel like. I only knew the feeling of knowing you’ve skied your best.”

Let’s think about this for a minute. Lindsey Vonn has the speed events covered for the U.S. women, the downhill and the super-G. You can throw Julia Mancuso into that mix as well. Mancuso and Shiffrin are solid in the giant slalom. In the slalom there’s really only one American we need to know about: Shiffrin. Her victory yesterday catapulted her to the top of the World Cup slalom standings.

So will we see Shiffrin on more podiums in the near future? And what about the Sochi Olympics, which are just over a year away?

“I met Mikaela last summer and she is indeed a great kid with a wonderful ski future in front of her,” said Kiki Cutter, the youngest American to win a World Cup race (slalom in 1968 at 16 years, 7 months, 1 day). “I am sure that we are going to see many more victories from Mikaela.”

Cutler was also the first American in history to win a World Cup race, so you can’t get much more of an expert opinion than hers. And if she’s right, Mikaela, we’ll see you on the slopes in Sochi.

Kerri Walsh Jennings’ next partner is a familiar one

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Kerri Walsh Jennings is slated to play with with 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh this summer, after she and Olympic bronze medal teammate April Ross split last month.

Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion with Misty May-Treanor before that bronze in Rio, and Branagh, who made the Beijing Games quarterfinals with Elaine Youngs, are entered in an FIVB World Tour event in Croatia the last week of June.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are both 38 years old and briefly paired in 2010 when May-Treanor was uncertain about making a run for the London Olympics. When May-Treanor told Walsh Jennings she was all-in for London, Walsh Jennings split from Branagh.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are hoping to play together through the World Tour Finals in late August, according to Volleyball Magazine.

That includes the world championships in Vienna, Austria, in late July and early August.

It’s not known if they will have the combined ranking points to earn an outright worlds spot. They could also receive a wild card for worlds. Entries will be announced next month.

Walsh Jennings, a mother of three, has said she hopes to play in the 2020 Olympics at age 41, when she will be older than any previous Olympic beach or indoor volleyball player, according to Olympic historians.

Branagh returned to competition this year after a one-year break to have her second child. She has played few international events since 2012 and last won internationally in 2010 (with Walsh Jennings).

Ross, an Olympic silver and bronze medalist and 2009 World champion, is now partnered with Lauren Fendrick, who played with Brooke Sweat in Rio. Ross, 34, said she will figure out her long-term partner plans for Tokyo 2020 after this season.

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Catching up with Ross Powers

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Ross Powers, now 38 years old and 15 years removed from his Olympic snowboarding title, is still out with halfpipe riders on the snow five days per week.

The difference now is that Powers is coaching. He runs the snowboarding program at Stratton Mountain School in Vermont, where he graduated from in 1997.

Powers spoke with OlympicTalk before last season, reflecting on 20 years of snowboarding in the Olympics, Shaun White and how he likes coaching.

OlympicTalk: The PyeongChang Winter Games will mark 20 years since snowboarding’s debut in Nagano. What was it like competing in the first Olympic halfpipe?

Powers (who won bronze in Nagano at age 19): It seemed kind of like a regular World Cup. We were up in the mountains. At the time, it was a really good halfpipe, but we ended up competing in some bad weather, some rain. I didn’t realize until I left Japan and got home how big the Olympics were. But looking back, it was a special time. And I really learned from the ’98 Olympics, like if I get this chance again, I’m going to go there, I’m going to do it all. I’m going to go to Opening Ceremonies, Closing Ceremonies, watch as many events as I can and just make the most out of the Games.

OlympicTalk: The Nagano halfpipe was about half the size of today’s superpipes (394 feet long with 11 1/2-foot walls vs. 590 feet with 22-foot walls in Sochi). Could today’s snowboarders compete with you guys back in 1998?

Powers: It was so different. At the time, I want to say it was the biggest pipe we rode, but compared to today’s standards, it’s small. The weather was tricky. I think a lot of those guys [today] could ride it, but it’s so much different than today’s halfpipe for sure.

OlympicTalk: In 2002, when you led a U.S. men’s halfpipe medal sweep, the rider who just missed the Olympic team was a 15-year-old Shaun White. What do you remember about him?

Powers: You kind of knew he was going to be the next guy. Where he took our sport and certain tricks. One thing that really impressed me about him is he’ll train really hard for an event, show up, even if the conditions are bad, he’s planned this trick he wants to do, and he’ll try it no matter what. Most of the time he’ll give it a go and land it. That actually hurt him in Russia [White attempted but couldn’t perfect the YOLO Flip 1440 in Sochi] because he probably could have stepped down a notch, gotten a medal and maybe even won the event.

OlympicTalk: Did Shaun ever beat you before you retired?

Powers: I had my run from 1998, ’99, ’00, ’01, all those times that I was doing really well. I tried to make the 2006 Olympics in Italy. I was the alternate, so I just missed that. He was definitely beating me up through those times.

OlympicTalk: Did you travel to the Torino Olympics as an alternate?

Powers: I did, yeah. I traveled over there and actually watched my buddy [Seth] Wescott win the gold in boarder cross. That night, he was like, you should try boarder cross. That kind of got me into doing that my next few years after that.

[Editor’s Note: Powers almost made the 2010 Olympic team in snowboard cross, even finishing third in a December 2009 World Cup.]

OlympicTalk: Which is tougher, coaching or competing?

Powers: I would say it is tougher coaching than competing. You just have so many responsibilities and so much work. The nice thing about coaching, though, compared to competing, is you can kind of push yourself and have fun [riding] on certain days but then also sit back and really work with the athletes on all other days. So when you’re feeling it, you can push yourself. So it’s not like an athlete, where you have to push yourself.

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