Mikaela Shiffrin

Who are the skiers to watch at the Sochi Olympics?

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Lindsey Vonn‘s announcement that she will not compete in Sochi leaves a major Olympic void on the U.S. Ski Team.

However, a few standout U.S. skiers have excelled in her absence on the World Cup tour since she first crashed at the World Championships in February.

Here’s the quartet that will be the focus in Sochi Olympics, followed by international stars:

Mikaela Shiffrin

The 18-year-old is the reigning world champion and World Cup champion in the slalom. Yes, she’s been called the next Vonn, simply because they share the same nationality (and Colorado hometown of Vail) and sport.

But Shiffrin is very different from Vonn. She is a technical event skier — slalom and giant slalom — whereas Vonn is a speed queen — downhill and super-G.

Shiffrin has won two of four World Cup slaloms this season, but she’s now facing a challenge from one of her idols, Austrian Marlies Schild. Schild, 32, has also won two slaloms this season after coming back from tearing right knee ligaments on Dec. 20, 2012.

Schild won Olympic silver in 2010, World Championships gold in 2011 and four of six World Cup titles from 2007 through 2012.

Shiffrin has improved mightily in giant slalom over the last year to the point where she is now a medal contender in the event with second- and third-place finishes in World Cup races this season.

Ted Ligety

Vonn’s injury at the World Championships did not overshadow Ligety’s accomplishments in Schladming, Austria.

The 2006 Olympic combined champion became the first man in 45 years to win three gold medals at single World Championships, sweeping the super-G, giant slalom and super combined.

Ligety, 29, won the first two giant slaloms this World Cup season and seemed poised to be a heavy Olympic gold-medal favorite in the event. But Austrian rival Marcel Hirscher won the last two, setting up a sweet Sochi showdown.

Expecting multiple medals from Ligety in Sochi may be a bit much, though. He had never won a World Cup or World Championships race outside of giant slalom before that World Championships breakthrough.

He has not made a podium outside giant slalom this season, but Ligety has proven a big-event skier.

Bode Miller

Miller, 36, is the most decorated Olympic skier in American history with five medals, including one of every color at the 2010 Olympics.

He missed all of last season after knee surgery but has returned encouraging early results, including taking second behind Ligety at a giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Dec. 8.

Miller, now married to beach volleyball player Morgan Beck, looks to be the best U.S. medal hope in men’s downhill and super-G with a top-10 in each but no podium finishes this season.

Julia Mancuso

Mancuso has been silent on the World Cup tour this season with a best finish of 12th.

But she, like Ligety, is a proven star on the biggest stage. She won the 2006 Olympic giant slalom and took silver in the 2010 Olympic downhill and super combined.

Mancuso, 29, steps in for Vonn as the most notable American in the speed events of downhill and super-G. She’s the reigning world bronze medalist in the latter, having finished in the top three in World Cup super-G standings the previous three seasons.

International Women’s Stars

Maria Hoefl-Riesch, Germany

Vonn’s longtime friend and rival leads the World Cup overall standings and steps in as the Olympic downhill favorite, having won both downhills in Lake Louise, Alberta, in December when Vonn made her return.

Hoefl-Riesch was actually more successful than Vonn at the 2010 Olympics, winning gold medals in the super combined and slalom.

She’s won World Championships medals in downhill, super-G, super combined and slalom and could win four medals in Sochi if she’s in form.

Tina Weirather, Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein, a landlocked European country of some 40,000 people, has won nine Winter Olympic medals, all in Alpine skiing, but none since 1988.

Weirather has emerged as an all-around threat with podium finishes in downhill, super-G and giant slalom this World Cup season. She is the daughter of four-time Olympic medalist Hanni Wenzel.

Lara Gut, Switzerland

Gut shot out of the gates this World Cup season with wins in three of the first four races. She has cooled a bit since but looks like a medal threat in super-G and giant slalom.

She was 17 years old when she won two silver medals at the 2009 World Championships and looked like a major threat to Vonn’s dominance in the downhill until she suffered a hip injury in a September 2009 crash that kept her out of the 2010 Olympics.

Tina Maze, Slovenia

Maze put up the greatest campaign in Alpine skiing history in 2012-13, but the Slovenian singing sensation has been nowhere near that form this season and not won any races.

If Maze finds her spark over the next month, she could win a medal in every Olympic Alpine skiing event. If she doesn’t, she could leave Sochi empty handed.

Olympic goalie mask includes actual gold

Yevgenia Medvedeva wins season opener in rout

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Olympic figure skating favorite Yevgenia Medvedeva, imperfect by her standards, still won her first international competition of the season by a whopping 36.74 points on Saturday.

The Russian tallied 146.72 points in her free skate at Nepela Trophy in Slovakia — lower than her median score over her two-year winning streak — and 226.72 points overall. 

Video is here. Full scores are here.

Medvedeva had a wrong edge call on her triple Lutz, stepping out of the landing. 

Judges gave her a negative grade of execution for it, snapping a streak of more than 60 straight jumps with positive grades dating to December.

No matter, the 17-year-old still had the highest free skate by 23.23 points.

It was 13.72 points shy of her world record set at the last competition of the 2016-17 season.

She distanced Japanese Rika Hongo and countrywoman Yelena Radionova, the only woman to beat Medvedeva in senior international competition in November 2015.

Medvedeva entered the free skate with a 13.51-point lead in the low-level event. That was via recording the second-highest short program tally under a 13-year-old judging system on Thursday.

Her flawed free skate still earned more points than any of her rivals racked up last season. 

All of her jumps except a double Axel were in the second half of her program to earn bonus points.

However, another Russian posted a higher free skate score last week.

That’s 15-year-old training partner Alina Zagitova, who was .45 better at a low-level event in Italy. 

It’s not entirely fair to compare scores from different judging panels at these early season competitions, though.

The first of six Grand Prix series events is Rostelecom Cup in Moscow in four weeks, featuring Medvedeva and Radionova.

Medvedeva and Zagitova could go head-to-head at the Grand Prix Final in December and should definitely both be at the Russian Championships later that month.

The figure skating season continues next week with Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the final Olympic qualifying competition. 

North Korea could clinch its first spots in any sport for the Olympics in the pairs event.

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Yuzuru Hanyu opens Olympic season with record score

Yuzuru Hanyu
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A sore knee didn’t hold Yuzuru Hanyu back. A record score to open his Olympic season.

The Olympic and world champion from Japan hit a pair of quadruple jumps in his short program at the Autumn Classic, a lower-level event in Montreal.

He was rewarded with 112.72 points, the highest short program score recorded under the 13-year-old judging system. Video is here.

It looked like a home competition for Hanyu.

Upon finishing, he bowed toward one set of bleachers (maybe a dozen rows) at the Sportsplexe Pierrefonds. More than two dozen Japanese flags made it hard to see most of the faces.

He bettered Javier Fernández, a two-time world champion and training partner, by 11.52 points. Fernández also landed two quadruple jumps to tally 101.2.

Full scores will be here upon the conclusion of the short program. The free skate is Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. A live stream is here.

Hanyu now owns the three highest short program scores under the 13-year-old system. The other two were set in the 2015-16 season.

Showdowns like Hanyu-Fernández are usually reserved for, at the earliest, the Grand Prix series in late October and November.

Hanyu and Fernández are very familiar with each other, having shared a coach in Canadian Brian Orser, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist, since 2012. They train in Toronto.

In that time, Hanyu became the first Japanese man to win an Olympic title (and the second teen from any nation to do it). He followed it up with world titles later in 2014 and this year.

Fernández achieved unfathomable success for a Spanish skater — world titles in 2015 and 2016, overtaking Hanyu in the free skate both times.

In PyeongChang, Hanyu can become the first man to repeat as Olympic champion since Dick Button in 1952. Fernández can become the third Spaniard to earn a Winter Olympic medal of any color in any sport, and the first since 1992.

The figure skating season continues next week with Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the final Olympic qualifying competition. North Korea could clinch its first spots in any sport for the Olympics in the pairs event.

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