Sarah Hendrickson

Ski Jumping World Cup season preview

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The Olympic addition of women’s ski jumping makes this arguably the most story-filled World Cup season in the sport’s history.

Most U.S. eyes will be on a jumper who might not compete at all before Sochi.  Utah teen Sarah Hendrickson, the reigning world champion, tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in her right knee in an Aug. 21 crash and hopes to be ready to fly in January.

In Europe, three decorated men enter the Olympic season with something to prove.

Japan has two intriguing jumpers separated by 24 years in age.

The ski jumping World Cup season begins in Klingenthal, Germany, this weekend for men and in Lillehammer, Norway, in two weeks for women. In will make more than a dozen stops — including the prestigious Four Hills Tournament — before the Olympics from Feb. 8-17.

Here are the key storylines:

1. Will Sarah Hendrickson jump in Sochi?

The latest Hendrickson recovery update came via Instagram on Thursday:

It’s hard to believe it has been 12 weeks since my reconstructive knee surgery. Thank god the days of pain and suffering on the couch are behind me and I am back to doing normal things. After hours of hard work in the gym it seemed to have shown at my doctors appointment yesterday. He was absolutely amazed with my gain in muscle strength and “on track for jumping in January” (Without set backs) A huge thanks to my PT for getting me to this phase as we are one step closer to the ultimate goal!

Her goal has been to jump in January from the start. It was quite ambitious but also necessary.

The U.S. Olympic Team is expected to be composed of four women. The winner at the Olympic Trials from Dec. 28-29 in Park City, Utah, will get the first spot. The next three are due to go to the top three ranked women in the World Cup standings as of Jan. 19 or 20.

The Olympic selection procedures include a discretionary selection clause that could allow Hendrickson to be picked even if she doesn’t have any World Cup points.

So, if Hendrickson can’t compete in a pre-Olympics World Cup, she’ll need to prove to coaches she deserves to go to Sochi. There are jumping hills in her hometown of Park City, Utah, where she could take those first jumps whenever she feels ready.

In the meantime, a few healthy U.S. women will set out on the World Cup tour to earn the U.S. the maximum of four quota spots. The leaders will be 2009 world champion Lindsey VanJessica Jerome and Abby Hughes, who were the top three Americans in each of the last two World Cup seasons.

If there are four U.S. women in the top 30, the fourth will be on the bubble come mid-January. If Hendrickson is put on the team, somebody will have to be bumped out.

“With Hendrickson hurt, it will be a test for us,” Hughes said. “We have never competed in an Olympic year, so we never had this kind of intensity. There are all these new emotions that we haven’t ever had with each other before. There are eight or nine of us fighting for four spots.”

source: AP2. An Austrian, a Swiss and a Finn

Gregor Schlierenzauer — Schlieri — is the star of ski jumping. As he was this time four years ago. Yet the Austrian ceded the spotlight to Simon Ammann at the 2010 Olympics, taking two bronzes behind the Swiss wizard’s double gold.

Schlierenzauer is coming off his second overall World Cup title and his second straight Four Hills crown. At 23, he already holds the career World Cup wins record of 50. He enters the Olympic season with the pressure of backing up that success with a breakthrough in Sochi.

“Individual gold is missing in my collection,” Schlierenzauer told Austria’s Kleine Zeitung. “But the real goal is to get to the Olympics in top form. No one knows what will then happen in Russia.”

Ammann enters what would be his fifth Olympics in an unfortunately familiar head-scratching position. Ammann swept the individual Olympic events in 2002 and 2010. But he went into each of the last three Olympic seasons without World Cup results befitting an Olympic champion.

In 2000-01, he competed once and finished 41st. A year later, he flew to Salt Lake City and stunned favorites Adam Malysz and Sven Hannawald in both the normal and large hills.

He fell back into mediocrity between 2003 and 2006, never finishing in the top 10 in the overall World Cup standings. He then went to Torino and, in a dreadful defense of his titles, placed 15th and 38th.

Ammann picked it back up going into 2009-10, but he was still behind Schlierenzauer. No matter, Ammann repeated his Salt Lake City feat and registered the longest jump in Olympic history (144 meters) to boot.

He has since regressed. Ammann hasn’t won an event since March 2012 and finished 14th and 11th in the overall World Cup standings the last two years.

Has he finally passed his prime at 32? Or does he have enough left to win one more Olympic gold and break his tie with mercurial Finnish legend Matti Nykanen?

“I can not be euphoric about Sochi every day,” Ammann, whose wife is Russian, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur. “No, I must do my day-to-day work.”

Finally, there is another Finn. Janne Ahonen is the last link to any semblance of national pride in a sport Finland once dominated. At 36, he’s come out of retirement for a second time.

Ahonen is a five-time Olympian with 10 career World Championship medals and 36 World Cup wins. He is also one of the greatest winter sports athletes of all time without an individual Olympic medal. Ahonen owns two Olympic silver medals in the team event and three fourth-place finishes in individual events.

“I thought, if the ski jumping in Finland is so bad, maybe it helps if I return,” Ahonen said, according to German newspaper Die Welt. “The people are desperately waiting for success. That’s the same for me. I like these situations. I need this pressure.”

3. Japan defies the ages

There’s little doubt the best women’s jumper, with Hendrickson sidelined, is Japan’s Sara Takanashi. She won the World Cup overall title over the American last year and took second at the World Championships.

Even if Hendrickson is healthy, Takanashi could beat her in Sochi. She won a test event at the Sochi venue on Oct. 13, the only jumper to clear 100 meters in both jumps.

Takanashi says she looks up to Hendrickson. This is not surprising given the Japanese turned 17 in October and is 4 feet, 11 inches.

One of Japan’s best men’s jumpers is almost a foot taller. He’s also 24 years older.

Noriaki Kasai is entering his 23rd season on the World Cup tour. He’s a six-time Olympian and likely to make his seventh Games considering he was Japan’s No. 2 jumper last year, 24th overall. The Olympic field will include 70 men at a maximum of five per country.

He’s best known for being part of the Japanese team that won silver at Lillehammer 1994. That team was in line for a possible gold until anchor jumper Masahiko “Happy” Harada mistimed his final jump, soaring about 30 meters shorter than his first jump. Norway took gold.

Japan famously redeemed in Nagano in 1998, but Kasai, who finished seventh on the normal hill individually, was not picked for the team.

Kasai joked in February he would like to compete for another 10 years, according to Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

U.S. skier tore ACL, competed at Olympics 2 weeks later

World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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MORE: Ashley Wagner knows pressure’s on her at worlds

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

Ashley Caldwell will win or lose Olympic aerials gold with triples

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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — As a teenager, Ashley Caldwell never had problems hanging with the boys when it came to doing the biggest flips off the aerials ramp. Now in her 20s, she sees no reason for that to change.

Caldwell will make or miss her third U.S. Olympic team, then potentially win or lose the gold medal in South Korea, by doing triple flips off the kicker while most of the women are doing doubles. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition that sets the bar high, and sends a certain message, regardless of whether she finishes first or last.

“It’s not just about trying to be there by myself,” Caldwell says. “It’s about maybe inspiring some younger girls to say, `I should be able to push to whatever I’m capable of doing, not necessarily what people say my gender is capable of doing.”‘

Caldwell never shirked from joining the teenage boys when they started moving to the bigger kickers and adding an extra flip to the doubles they did as kids.

Triples are the price of admission for the men, and while not unheard of among the women, the list of athletes who will try them is short: Jacqui Cooper, Alla Tsuper and Xu Mengtao are among the few who have tried them over the years. They’re also among the best to ever fly off a ramp.

At the Sochi Olympics, Lydia Lassila of Australia became the first woman to land a quadruple-twisting triple flip on snow in training. The next night, she brought it to the medals round, and though she touched her hand to the ground on the landing, she won a bronze medal anyway and stole the headlines.

“That’s who I’m inspired by,” Caldwell said that night. “She’s trying to push the sport so that girls are jumping like the boys, and she’s doing it, and it’s really impressive.”

At freestyle world championships earlier this month, Caldwell sent her message when she became the first woman to cleanly land that same triple-flipping, quadruple-twisting jump in competition (video here).

“It was the first time I had every coach come up to me and shake my hand before the score even came up,” said Todd Ossian, who works with Caldwell as head coach of the U.S. aerials team.

And yet, Caldwell was oh-so-close to not being able to even try that winning jump.

Aerials competitions go through a series of qualifying and elimination rounds that include only one jump each. Consistency is rewarded, and most women train a variety of double flips to make it through the rounds, then bring out their most intricate jump – more often than not, also a double – for when the medals are awarded.

Caldwell doesn’t go that route. She tries triples every time she steps onto the hill.

It adds extra – some might say unnecessary – risk to the early rounds. When the field was being cut from 12 to nine at world championships, for instance, Caldwell didn’t land her triple flip. She was able to squeak into the top nine and advance only because her degree of difficulty for the triple was so high.

“I’m OK sacrificing some good competition results to increase my consistency on the triple,” says Caldwell, giving a nod to the reality that training days on snow are precious and she needs to use them to focus on the jumps she’ll be performing when the contests start.

The recently ended season tested the limits of how much Caldwell was willing to sacrifice. In meet after meet, from Moscow to Minsk to an Olympic test event in South Korea, difficulties with the triple kept her far away from the podium. In the World Cup standings, Caldwell finished 10th.

To her, that’s more a badge of honor than a sign of failure. In a sport that oddly transforms daredevils into conformists, and rewards consistency over risk-taking, Caldwell plans to keep pushing anyway.

In doing triples, her mission is as much about winning as bringing others along for the ride.

“I want the crowd to feel like they know who won,” Caldwell said. “I want it to be impressive. I just want people to say, `That’s sweet. That’s what’s deserved.’ If a lot of girls are doing triples up there and I fall, there would still be a lot of girls who would do well. I’m cool with that. If I mess up, that’s OK. But I want the sport to look good.”

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VIDEO: Top U.S. aerials skier crashes hard at World Cup