Ole Einar Bjoerndalen

Biathlon World Cup season preview

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It is likely that at least some major history will be set at the Olympic biathlon competition in February.

An American is in position to win the nation’s first Olympic medal in the sport. A Norwegian could break the record for most career Winter Olympic medals, two years after Michael Phelps reset the Summer Games mark. And two dominant biathletes are vying for the greatest single-Games Winter Olympic medal haul ever.

The biathlon World Cup begins with a mixed relay in Oestersund, Sweden, on Sunday.

Here’s the full World Cup schedule:

Oestersund, Sweden — Nov. 24-Dec. 1
Hochfilzen, Austria — Dec. 6-8
Annecy-Le Grand Bornand, France — Dec. 12-15
Oberhof, Germany — Jan. 3-5
Ruhpolding, Germany — Jan. 8-12
Antholz-Anterselva, Italy — Jan. 16-19
Pokljuka, Slovenia — March 6-9
Kontiolahti, Finland — March 13-16
Oslo, Norway — March 20-23

Here are three storylines going into the Olympic season:

1. Will the U.S. be a podium threat?

Four years ago, a big story (in winter sports circles) was the American rise of two sports with no U.S. Olympic medal history — Nordic combined and biathlon.

Tim Burke, a 2006 Olympian from Paul Smiths, N.Y., had worn the yellow bib in the run-up to the Vancouver Games, marking the World Cup standings leader. It made him a contender to end that Olympic medal drought.

Burke’s results in Vancouver: 13th, 18th, 45th, 46th and 47th. The Nordic combined team won four medals. The biathlon drought continued.

Burke is again rising going into an Olympic season.

In February, he won silver in the 20km individual race at the World Championships in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. He also finished third in a mass start race earlier in the World Cup season. Those marked his first World Championships or World Cup podium finishes since that Olympic disappointment.

“If anything it has given me a good confidence boost,” Burke said of the worlds silver. “That proves to myself and everyone else  that I can compete with the best guys during the most important races.”

Burke must string together more positive results this season to earn medal contender status in Sochi.

Burke is one of three Americans who have already qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team, joining fellow two-time Olympian Lowell Bailey and would-be Olympic rookie Susan Dunklee. Bailey and Dunklee’s best single-race results last season were both seventh.

The rest of the U.S. Olympic Team will be determined by race results in December and January.

2. Ole Einar Bjoerndalen‘s quest for Olympic history

They call him the king for good reason. Bjoerndalen owns 11 Olympic medals over five Games. How good is he? He finished fifth in a cross-country race at the 2002 Olympics.

With one medal in Sochi, Bjoerndalen will match the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time — countryman Bjorn Daehlie, a cross-country skier who won 12 over three Games.

Can he do it?

Bjoerndalen turns 40 on Jan. 27 and has said these will be his final Olympics. He hasn’t made the podium of an individual World Cup or World Championships race since February 2012.

But Bjoerndalen is buoyed by relays. Norway has won every Olympic and World Championships men’s relay since 2009, and Bjoerndalen has always been one of the four chosen participants.

There will be three Olympic biathlon relays for the first time in Sochi. A mixed men’s/women’s relay will make its Olympic debut, perhaps easing Bjoerndalen’s quest to not only catch Daehlie but also pass him.

Norway won a medal in both World Cup mixed relays last season and won the World Championship. However, the mixed relay includes two men (as opposed to four in the men’s relay), and Bjoerndalen, the third-best Norwegian men’s biathlete last season, was not a part of the mixed team at all.

Bjoerndalen is not on the start list for the World Cup-opening mixed relay Sunday, the only mixed relay before the Olympics. Clearly, he must show strong individual World Cup form to ensure he’s on that mixed relay in Sochi. If not, could it become Carl Lewis situation?

3. More gold for Berger, Fourcade?

There is little doubt who the world’s greatest biathletes are.

Norway’s Tora Berger and France’s Martin Fourcade could sweep the individual Olympic events in Sochi — a feat not done since Bjoerndalen in 2002.

Berger could win six golds, given Norway’s relay prowess, which would break American speed skater Eric Heiden‘s record five from the 1980 Olympics.

Her path was opened with the early retirement of German Magdalena Neuner after the 2011-12 season. She blasted through it with four golds and two silvers at the World Championships in February and a sweep of the season titles in all four individual World Cup standings.

Fourcade, too, swept all four individual World Cup standings but was somewhat surprised at worlds, taking one gold and four silvers.

Watch their results over the course of the World Cup season, especially against their top rivals — Norwegian Emil Hegle Svendsen for Fourcade and Belarusian Darya Domracheva and German Andrea Henkel for Berger. Henkel is Burke’s longtime girlfriend.

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John-Henry Krueger makes Olympics, four years after swine flu

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Four years ago, John-Henry Krueger spent Friday night and early Saturday morning at Olympic Trials lying on an apartment bathroom floor, unable to keep food down due to swine flu.

Tonight, Krueger celebrates his first Olympic berth.

“The win today in spite of what happened four years ago just made the victory that much sweeter,” Krueger said on NBCSN.

He topped the 1500m at the Olympic Trials in Kearns, Utah, to become the first of five men to qualify for PyeongChang this weekend.

Krueger was second in the first of two 1500m races behind three-time Olympic medalist J.R. Celski. Celski went into the second and final 1500m as the heavy favorite but slipped and fell with a lap and a half left.

Krueger won the race and moved ahead of Celski in the overall standings for the one Olympic berth available. Celski will have more chances Saturday and Sunday to get one of the last four Olympic men’s spots.

Vancouver Olympian Lana Gehring swept the women’s 1500m to make the Olympic team, too. Gehring, 27, held off Jessica Kooreman by .113 of a second in the second 1500m final to clinch the spot. Kooreman was later disqualified.

Gehring failed to make the Sochi Olympic team, retired, unretired in late 2015 to try long-track speed skating, then switched back to short track this year.

In 2014, the U.S. won zero individual short track medals at an Olympics for just the second time since the sport debuted at Albertville 1992.

Celski and Kooreman came the closest to the podium, each picking up a fourth-place finish.

Individual medal prospects in the six events in PyeongChang are not great. The U.S. bagged one individual World Cup medal this season in 24 total races — a bronze from Celski.

Krueger leads the program with five individual World Cup medals since Sochi, one coming in the last three years.

The best hope may be the men’s relay, where the U.S. made the podium at the last three Olympics. A U.S. quartet anchored by Celski broke the world record last month.

The four men who will join Krueger in PyeongChang will be decided the next two days in Utah. The top finishers in the 500m (Saturday) and 1000m (Sunday) are guaranteed Olympic berths.

The U.S. women did not qualify an Olympic relay, but the 500m and 1000m winners will join Gehring in PyeongChang for individual races.

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U.S. Olympic Short Track Trials

Day Time (ET) Events Network
Friday 6:45-8 p.m. 1500m rounds STREAM LINK
8:30-10 p.m. 1500m finals NBCSN | STREAM LINK
Saturday 12-1:45 p.m. 500m rounds STREAM LINK
2:30-4 p.m. 500m finals NBC | STREAM LINK
Sunday 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. 1000m rounds STREAM LINK
1-3 p.m. 1000m finals NBC | STREAM LINK

Chloe Kim qualifies for U.S. Olympic snowboard team

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BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — In 2014, Chloe Kim ranked high enough to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in snowboard halfpipe, but she was too young to compete at the Winter Games.

Four years later, she’ll finally have the opportunity to represent the red, white and blue at the Olympics.

Kim won her second straight Olympic qualifier, which will secure her nomination to the U.S. halfpipe team. The 17-year-old, who is the only woman currently capable of landing back-to-back 1080s, is considered the gold medal favorite for PyeongChang 2018.

“It seems like a dream almost, and I’m trying to wake up,” Kim said of earning her spot on the Olympic team. “I think today when I get home, it’s going to sink in, and I’m probably going to cry.”

With the pressure of Olympic qualifying over with, Kim says that cleaning up her cab 1080s will be a primary focus as she prepares for PyeongChang.

Who will join Kim on the women’s halfpipe team remains up in the air, though Kelly Clark is in good shape after a third at the Copper Grand Prix and a second at Dew Tour Breckenridge, which hosted Friday’s qualifier.

The three-time Olympic medalist crashed on her first two runs in the final and needed to be checked out by the medical staff after hitting the deck on a frontside 1080 attempt on Run 2. With a bandage on her nose, she came back undeterred in Run 3, landed the frontside 1080 and got onto the podium.

“These are Olympic qualifying events, and me ending up in the middle of the pack isn’t really going to benefit me,” Clark said. “I have one shot, so I went for it.”

The men’s halfpipe competition produced a surprise winner in 19-year-old Jake Pates, who outdueled not just his own U.S. teammates but also a stacked field of international riders.

Pates came out firing on his third and final run, putting down a sequence of tricks that ended with a unique variation on the double McTwist 1260 made famous by Shaun White. Instead of doing a standard grab, Pates executed a tail grab on the trick that added extra difficulty and clearly caught the eye of the judges.

“That was a trick I’ve been wanting to do forever,” Pates said of the double McTwist, which he had never landed in a contest before. “Seriously, I saw that happen when I was, like, 8 years old. I saw that happen at X Games and it was crazy.”

According to Pates, it was just the fourth time he had ever landed the trick on snow.

With such a stacked group of riders on the U.S. team, Pates was mostly overlooked when it came to Olympic qualifying favorites. Now he’s suddenly in the discussion as a possible medal contender.

“I never thought in a million years I would have won this event today,” he said. “I just wanted to land that run, actually I’ve never done that before. I’ve been dreaming about that all week.”

Ben Ferguson, who was the top American at the first selection event, took a strong step toward making his first Olympic team as well by finishing third overall and second among Americans in Breckenridge. He and Pates will both be in position to potentially secure their spots on the team at the next qualifier.

“For every other American out there, there is another level of pressure we’ve got to deal with doing these [Olympic qualifiers],” Ferguson said afterward. “And for me, doing well in these last two has kind of pulled some of that pressure off and relieved a little bit of anxiety, and I can just focus on having fun more.”

Aside from helping to shape the U.S. Olympic team, the men’s halfpipe competition in Breckenridge also provided a showcase of international stars who will be in the mix for medals in PyeongChang.

Scotty James of Australia unveiled a new run which included back-to-back double cork 1260s and a switch backside 900. It was a very technical run which earned him a massive score and would have given him the victory were it not for Pates stepping it up at the very end.

Also standing out was Japan’s Ayumu Hirano. The Sochi silver medalist started his run off with a massive indy air before going into a difficult sequence of tricks that included a frontside double cork 1440 and frontside double cork 1260. He finished in fourth.

Absent from the men’s field was White, the two-time Olympic gold medalist. White was unable to put down a clean run amid snowy conditions during Thursday’s qualifying round and therefore failed to advance to the final.

Despite the disappointing result, White is still in good shape when it comes to Olympic qualifying. He was second among U.S. riders at the first selection event and still has two qualifying events left.

Up to three spots on the U.S. team for both men and women will be allocated through automatic qualification. In order to be eligible, riders need a top-three finish at one of the selection events. Each rider’s two best results will be used as a tiebreaker.

There are two selection events remaining for snowboard halfpipe, and they will both take place in January.

Olympic qualifying for snowboard and freeski slopestyle resumes Saturday in Breckenridge.

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Snowboard Halfpipe
Qualifying Standings 
(through two of four events)
1. Ben Ferguson — 1,800*
2. Jake Pates — 1,320*
3. Danny Davis — 1,200
4. Shaun White — 1,120*
5. Gabe Ferguson — 950
5. Chase Josey — 950

1. Chloe Kim — 2,000* (QUALIFIED)
2. Kelly Clark — 1,400*
3. Maddie Mastro — 1,300*
4. Arielle Gold — 1,100*
5. Elena Hight — 850
*Has automatic qualifying minimum of one top-three result.

Breckenridge Finals (all times Eastern)
Friday
Men’s Ski Halfpipe — 11 a.m.-12:15 p.m.
Women’s Ski Halfpipe — 12:45-1:30 p.m.
Men’s Snowboard Halfpipe — 2:30-3:45 p.m.
Women’s Snowboard Halfpipe — 4:15-5 p.m.

Saturday
Women’s Snowboard Slopestyle — 11-11:45 a.m.
Men’s Snowboard Slopestyle — 12:15-1:30 p.m.
Men’s Ski Slopestyle — 2:30-3:45 p.m.
Women’s Ski Slopestyle — 4:15-5 p.m.