Ole Einar Bjoerndalen

Biathlon World Cup season preview

Leave a comment

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.

Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess a unique U.S. Olympic hopeful

Tony Azevedo retires after 5 Olympics in water polo

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 14:  Tony Azevedo of the USA in action during the USA vs Italy Waterpolo group match at Julio de Lamare Aquatics Centre on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Tony Azevedo is ending one of the greatest water polo careers in U.S. history, retiring after a record five Olympics at age 35.

Azevedo, the first American to play in five Olympic water polo tournaments, said it was a tough decision but a necessary one to spend time with his family — wife Sara and two kids, according to the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram.

“The traveling and everything for them would be too much,” said Azevedo, who has a 3-year-old boy and a girl born after the Rio Olympics. “It’s time.”

Azevedo was a teenage prodigy dubbed the “Kobe Bryant of water polo.” A ball boy at the 1996 Olympics, Azevedo made a list of about 13 goals as a “slow, fat, chubby kid” who wanted to start on his high school team.

He reached all of those goals except for one — a gold medal. Azevedo made his Olympic debut out of high school in 2000 and then helped lead the U.S. to silver at Beijing 2008, his lone Olympic or world championships medal in 13 combined appearances. He led the U.S. in goals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.

“If anyone asks, am I going to miss the swimming? No. Am I going to miss the games? No. Are you going to miss the Olympics? No,” Azevedo said. “I’m going to miss those days of grinding with your teammates.”

Azevedo was one of the top U.S. stories of the Rio Olympics, since he was born in the Brazilian city and lived there for 23 days before moving to Southern California. Azevedo, whose father was a Brazilian national team member, played for a Sao Paulo club team for much of the past Olympic cycle.

The U.S. went 2-3 in Rio, failing to advance out of group play.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: PyeongChang 2018 daily schedule highlights

Five takeaways from World Alpine Skiing Championships

Leave a comment

Five thoughts after an unpredictable world alpine skiing championships, looking ahead to the Olympics … 

1. Expect Mikaela Shiffrin to be busier in PyeongChang

Shiffrin chose not to enter the super-G or super combined in the first week at worlds, in order to maximize her medal potential in the giant slalom and slalom in the final weekend. It paid off with silver and gold medals.

It seems unlikely that Shiffrin adopts the same, two-race slate in PyeongChang. The 2018 Olympic schedule has the giant slalom and slalom in the first week, followed by the speed events of super-G, downhill and super combined.

Consider also Shiffrin’s mindset going into St. Moritz.

“Right now, I’m going with [only giant slalom and slalom] because I just don’t think that I have quite enough experience in speed [events] to be able to count on winning a medal in those events yet,” she said. “But by the time we go to South Korea next year, maybe I could. I might be in a position where I can at least be in contention for medals in giant slalom, slalom, combined, super-G and maybe even downhill, only because nobody’s ever skied on that track before.”

The women get their first look at the 2018 Olympic venue with World Cup races in two weeks, a downhill and super-G. Shiffrin said before worlds that she planned to travel to South Korea for training but to leave before the races start. She wanted to prioritize the following week’s World Cup giant slalom and slalom in Squaw Valley, Calif.

What’s for sure is we can learn plenty about Shiffrin’s Olympic potential in speed events this weekend. She’s set to race at the World Cup stop in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, which is made up of two combineds and a super-G.

If Shiffrin enters all three events, it will bring her career World Cup start total in downhill, super-G and combined up to 10 races. Her best finish in her first seven starts was fourth in a super-G last month.

“I have a lot of goals there,” Shiffrin said of speed events after bagging her third straight slalom world title Saturday. “Hopefully, some day, I’d like to win in super-G and downhill, but I think it’ll take some time before I can do that consistently. It’s definitely a long road from here. I still feel like I just started.”

2. Lindsey Vonn must heal

Vonn made it clear at worlds that she wasn’t 100 percent recovered from breaking her right upper arm in a Nov. 10 training crash. Her right hand movement was so limited that she couldn’t put her hair in a ponytail, let alone comfortably grip a ski pole at 75 miles per hour.

After skiing out of the opening super-G, troubled by that hand, she duct-taped her glove to her ski pole, placed fifth in the super combined and third in the downhill. She said the bronze medal felt like gold given her latest injury comeback.

Vonn became the oldest woman to earn a world championships medal. In PyeongChang, she can become the oldest woman to earn an Olympic Alpine medal.

Vonn’s biggest hurdle is her own health. A smooth finish to the season, regardless of wins, and a normal offseason is key.

“I want to be in a position at the Olympics where I’m at my top form not just struggling to kind of make it back into the mix,” Vonn said, according to The Associated Press. “It’s a different ballgame when I’m prepared.”

3. U.S. lacks young stars

Worlds went about to form for the entire U.S. team. Shiffrin and Vonn were the only medalists. No man placed in the top 10 for the first time since 1997.

Injuries and, especially, aging are the concerns.

Four-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso, out since November 2015 hip surgery, was on the team but didn’t enter any events. The top U.S. men on the World Cup in recent seasons, Ted Ligety and Steven Nyman, went out with season-ending injuries in January. Bode Miller, who has trained but not raced this season, was in the NBC Sports commentary booth.

All of them are 32 years and older. Maybe some summon one last Olympic medal surge next year, but what about after that?

Shiffrin is the only American younger than age 28 who owns a World Cup victory. U.S. men earned Youth Olympic and junior worlds gold medals last year, but they look destined for 2022.

4. Marcel Hirscher approaches Austrian legends

Hirscher was the best skier in St. Moritz, despite reportedly spending days in bed before his first race. He earned two golds and missed a third by .01 in the super combined.

Only Tony Sailer owns more individual world titles among Austrian men. Hirscher is en route to his sixth straight World Cup overall title this season, which no man from any country has accomplished.

He’s at 43 World Cup wins, 11 shy of the Austrian men’s mark held by Hermann Maier. At 27 years old, Hirscher ought to eclipse it.

But Hirscher’s résumé has a gaping hole — no Olympic gold medal. He was upset in the Sochi Olympic slalom by countryman Mario Matt. And there’s no certainty Hirscher will be a favorite in PyeongChang.

For years, he was the world’s second-best giant slalom skier behind the now-injured Ligety, who could reclaim the throne next season, though that is a tall order.

In slalom, young Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen has been neck and neck with Hirscher but had a poor worlds.

The super combined is the most unpredictable event, but even there Frenchman Alexis Pinturault has won six of the 11 World Cup races since 2013.

5. Surprises in St. Moritz

Most races provided surprise medalists.

In all five men’s events, either the gold or silver medalist had not won a World Cup race in at least two years (or, in three cases, never made a World Cup podium). Women’s medalists in downhill, super-G, giant slalom and the super combined had never won a World Cup race.

New names were going to emerge regardless, considering the list of recent stars not racing (retired Tina Maze, Ligety, Miller, Aksel Lund Svindal) and those who did compete but were slowed or forced out by injury (Vonn, Anna Veith, Gut).

More surprises could be in store in PyeongChang given, as Shiffrin said, it’s a new track for everybody.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Stenmark to Vonn: ‘Don’t beat my record too early’