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.

Ragan Smith delivers in first U.S. championship title win

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Ragan Smith embraced the role of heavy favorite coming into the U.S. gymnastics championships.

Thrust into the spotlight for the first time in her career, the 17-year-old hardly appeared intimidated by the stage. Smith pulled away from the field to claim her first national title Sunday, posting a score of 115.250, more than three points clear of Jordan Chiles in second place and Riley McCusker in third.

Smith opened up a 1.3-point lead over McCusker in the opening round Friday but admitted afterward she wasn’t particularly impressed by her own performance. She was considerably sharper less than 48 hours later, her 57.850 total in the finals was the best in the 16-woman all-around field by nearly two points.

Smith is one of the few holdovers from the 2016 Olympic cycle, serving as an alternate for the “Final Five” team that won half of the available medals in Rio de Janeiro last fall. Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez are taking breaks or have moved on, leaving Smith as the standard bearer for new national team coordinator Valeri Liukin.

The program appears to be in solid hands. Smith ditched “The Addams Family” themed floor routine she used last year for something a little more mature. It’s not the only part of her gymnastics that has grown up. Smith finished first on floor and beam and tied for third on bars.

Smith will be in the mix for the all-around title at the world championships in Montreal, where she’ll have a chance to extend the U.S.’s dominance. An American woman has won the world or Olympic title each of the last six years. Barring injury, Smith should be right there.

Liukin said he wasn’t alarmed following an uneven performance by the field in preliminaries, calling it a positive step for a group lacking in experience. The gymnastics were markedly improved in the finals.

Chiles slipped by McCusker into second thanks to a fabulous save on beam in which she turned a near disaster into something decidedly artful.

Chiles was in the middle of “wolf turn” (basically spinning on one foot while in a crouch on a 4-inch wide piece of wood) when she nearly fell over. Instead she rose to her feet, kept rotating, and went right into the next part of her routine as if it was planned all along.

Chiles’ steadiness gives Liukin another option as he tries to put together the rest of the four-woman team that will join Smith in Montreal. McCusker, only recently recovered from foot and wrist injuries, tried to keep the heat on Smith but stepped out of bounds following the last tumbling pass on her floor routine. McCusker finished first on bars — her legs practically magnetized together as she went from bar to bar — to win the event with ease.

Ashton Locklear, like Smith an alternate last summer, wound up second on bars with a watered down routine as he makes her way back from her own injury issues and should have time to install upgrades before Montreal.

Whoever heads to Canada in October will go with the usual expectations for what has become the sport’s most dominant program.

MORE: Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles has competed in the six previous U.S. National Championships, winning the last four, but in Anaheim this year, she’s watching from the sidelines. Biles won four gold medals (team, all-around, vault and floor) and one bronze (on beam) last summer at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

This week she revealed she has returned to the gym to prepare for a yet to be determined event, in her return to competition.

When asked how she’s been doing in the gym by NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce, Biles responded with her signature smile accompanied by an endearingly bashful eye roll, “the beginning is…OK.”

MORE: Danell Leyva on why he’s retiring

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