Mikaela Shiffrin lands on Lienz GS podium, Olympic team

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In landing on another podium, Mikaela Shiffrin made sure she also landed a spot in Sochi in a second event.

The American teen finished third behind Austrian Anna Fenninger and Swede Jessica Lindell-Vikarby in a World Cup giant slalom Saturday in Lienz, Austria, the final Olympic qualifying event in the discipline.

With the next World Cup giant slalom race not scheduled until Feb. 1 in Maribor, Slovenia, and the U.S. selecting its Olympic Team on Jan. 26, this was the final opportunity for American skiers to earn points toward Sochi qualification in the discipline.

Shiffrin had already locked up her spot on the Olympic team with her slalom victory in Levi, Finland on Nov. 16, and her runner-up finish in the giant slalom at Beaver Creek on Dec. 1 also virtually assured her an Olympic GS start. Athletes with World Cup podium finishes are nominated for inclusion in the Games. Scoring a second podium finish only served to cement her candidacy.

Based on criteria, three-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso would appear to be the next U.S. choice. She could have made that decision a no-brainer with a Top 10 finish – her best GS finish this season was a 12th in St. Moritz on Dec. 15 – but she continued her season-long struggles and wound up finishing 29th. Megan McJames, the only other American on the startlist, did not help her chances of making the Sochi roster when she hooked a tip a few gates before the finish of the first run and skied out.

Although slalom is clearly Shiffrin’s best event – she is the reigning world champion and has reached eight podiums in 22 World Cup starts with five victories – she is steadily entering the conversation of serious medal contenders in giant slalom as well.

Shiffrin has four Top 10 finishes in five starts in the discipline this season, the only blemish a DNF in St. Moritz on Dec. 15. Prior to this race, she opened with a sixth-place effort in Soelden on Oct. 26, finished second in Beaver Creek, and finished eighth in Val d’Isere on Dec. 22.

After one run, Shiffrin found herself in fourth place, .35 seconds behind the pace set by Lindell-Vikarby, who managed difficult conditions on the Hochstein course to open scant leads on Austrians Fenninger and Kathrin Zettel, who came in .02 seconds and .04 seconds behind.

“I’m normally pretty comfortable within half a second on a first run,” Shiffrin said. “It’s always better to come down and feel like you separated yourself from everybody, but I’m not quite there in GS. As long as I am in this position where I can really attack I’m psyched with that.”

Unlike her first run, where she dumped a few fractions of a second in the middle of the course, Shiffrin gained speed through that portion of her second run and carried a .68 second lead to the finish. Zettel followed, but lost most of her first-run advantage by the first time interval and wound up finishing fourth.

Fenninger absolutely pinned the top half of her second run and saw her .33 second advantage on Shiffrin at the start almost double by the first interval. She maintained that speed through the middle and lower sections and crossed with a half-second lead on Shiffrin. Lindell-Vikarby was unable to match that performance, assuring Fenninger of her third straight victory in World Cup races held on Dec. 28. Fenninger, who won this race in 2011, is the first woman to win the Lienz giant slalom twice.

“My preparation was good but I didn’t believe I could win today,” Fenninger told the Associated Press. “It’s funny that I’ve done it again on the 28th. I came here full of good memories and I tried to build on that feeling. I’ve learned a lot in recent years. I used to get distracted easily at races in Austria but now I use the home support as positive energy.”

All five World Cup giant slalom races this season have been won by different women.

It was not a good day for reigning World Cup overall champion Tina Maze of Slovenia and 2010 Olympic champion Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany, who each found themselves than two seconds off the lead pace set by Lindell-Vikarby during Run 1. Maze wound up finishing 14th while Rebensburg was 24th.

American Lindsey Vonn is sitting out this weekend to rest her re-injured right knee ahead of the Sochi Olympics.

Lindell-Vikarby added 80 points to her season total and continues to lead the World Cup season standings in giant slalom 332 points. Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein, who finished 17th, remains the overall points leader with 609, 12 points ahead of Fenninger.

“The overall World Cup is not really an issue now, although people keep asking me about it,” Fenninger told AP.

The women’s Alpine skiing World Cup continues in Lienz tomorrow with the women’s slalom. The first run begins at 4:30 a.m. ET and second run at 7:30 a.m. ET. Shiffrin and Austria’s Marlies Schild figure to be among the top contenders.

“Last time I was in Lienz, I didn’t have a great GS race but I had a pretty good slalom race, so I’m really excited for tomorrow,” said Shiffrin, who earned her first World Cup slalom podium as a 16-year-old on this course. “I’m just thinking day-by-day and trying to put my best skiing out there. I feel like I always leave something on the hill, and I don’t want to do that anymore.”

Lienz Giant Slalom

1. Anna Fenninger (AUT) 2:17.00

2. Jessica Lindell-Vikarby (SWE) 2:17.50

3. Mikaela Shiffrin (USA) 2:17.51

4. Kathrin Zettel (AUT) 2:17.96

5. Nadia Fanchini (ITA) 2:18.19

6. Federica Brignone (ITA) 2:18.30

7. Maria Pietilae-Holmner (SWE) 2:19.21

8. Anemone Marmottan (FRA) 2:19.33

9. Nina Loeseth (NOR) 2:19.48

10. Denise Karbon (ITA) 2:19.54

29. Julia Mancuso (USA)

DNF Megan McJames (USA)

French ice dancers break world record again

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French ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron broke their own world record scores in the last major competition before the Olympics.

Papadakis and Cizeron totaled 203.16 points with 121.87 in Saturday’s free dance at the European Championships, both new bests, in Moscow.

Full results are here. NBCSN will air coverage Saturday at 7 p.m. ET.

The French go into the Olympics as favorites over Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won all three of their head-to-heads last season.

But the French finally overcame the 2010 Olympic champions Virtue and Moir at December’s Grand Prix Final.

Virtue and Moir rank No. 2 under an eight-year-old ice dance system with a personal best of 199.86 points.

Papadakis and Cizeron became the youngest world champions in ice dance in 40 years in 2015, then repeated as world champs in 2016.

Virtue and Moir returned after two years off for the 2016-17 season and went undefeated, including dethroning the French at worlds.

Three U.S. couples are the top contenders for the Olympic bronze medal.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White have not competed since becoming the first U.S. Olympic ice dance champions in Sochi.

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MORE: NBC Olympics PyeongChang preview series on Netflix

Tonga flag bearer from Rio says he qualified for Winter Olympics

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Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless, oiled-up Tongan flag bearer from the Rio Games, said he qualified for the PyeongChang Olympics in cross-country skiing on Saturday.

“This was my last race possible, and we did it,” Taufatofua said in an interview with Olympic Channel, which also reported that he qualified. “This is a miracle.”

Taufatofua said he qualified at the final weekend of the Olympic qualifying period in Iceland, which is more than 9,000 miles from his home archipelago.

The last two events before qualification ends were Saturday’s freestyle race and a classic race scheduled for Sunday. Saturday’s results have not been posted yet.

Taufatofua completed a journey this season that included races in Colombia, Turkey, Poland and Armenia.

Taufatofua said he had seven chances to qualify for PyeongChang before Saturday and failed in all of them, finishing last each time (The official results show Taufatofua beating skiers from Malaysia and Mexico in some of these races.).

Taufatofua scrambled to make it to Iceland from Croatia this week. He said his group drove three days through a blizzard, an avalanche closing off the road at one point.

“People don’t see the hard work that goes behind,” he said. “They just see the shiny guy that walks with the flag.”

Taufatofua lost his opening Olympic taekwondo match by mercy rule in Rio, two weeks after his viral appearance in the Opening Ceremony.

He announced in December 2016 that he was switching to cross-country skiing in a bid for PyeongChang.

Cross-country, while a physically taxing pursuit, is one of the easier Winter Olympic sports to gain qualification for athletes from nations without much Winter Games history.

“I decided to find the hardest sport possible because I needed a new challenge,” Taufatofua said. “The goal was to do it one year, and we did it.”

Taufatofua debuted at the 2017 World Championships and was 153rd of 156 finishers in the 1.6km sprint freestyle.

It took Taufatofua 5 minutes, 44.72 seconds to complete the course in Lahti, Finland, which was about 10,000 miles from Tonga. The top qualifier clocked 3:11.72.

How will he dress at the PyeongChang Opening Ceremony, where outdoor temperatures are likely to be below freezing?

“One step at a time,” Taufatofua said. “Right now, I just want to go and party. I destroyed myself just to get here.”

In 2014, Bruno Banani became the first Tongan to compete at a Winter Olympics, placing 32nd in men’s luge. He was later the subject of a documentary.

Banani gained fame starting in early 2012, when the story of his name was widely publicized. Banani’s real name is Fuahea Semi, but he changed it to the name of his German clothing sponsor as a marketing ploy.

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VIDEO: Shaun White scores perfect 100 to qualify for Olympics

I raced through 5 countries in the last 24hrs to try and get to my race in Croatia. I sat in a taxi for 6 hrs driving through Armenia into Georgia in the middle of the night. I sat on the front seat of the @turkishairlines plane, sprinted through the airport and snuck through the business class fast transit lane and somehow managed to arrive at the gate 15 min before departure for my flight to Croatia. Once there I found that @turkishairlines had shut the gate early even after their delayed initial flight from Georgia, leaving me stranded. After remembering a scene from a James Bond movie, I pressed all the buttons on the aerobridge door to see if I could somehow open it and sprint down to the connecting flight, unfortunately that didn’t work, and luckily I didn’t get arrested. So here I am sitting at Istanbul airport missing the race that could have possibly gotten me to the Olympics. It was always going to be a long shot but I had to give it a shot and I did. Soo many times in life we will get disappointed. When this happens I have two options. I can sit on that chair crying about what could have been and how unfair life is…. or I can go and find some good quality chocolate, pull out my notepad and start planning “what’s next”— I always did like chocolate…

A post shared by Pita Taufatofua (Pita T) (@pita_tofua) on