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

U.S. Olympic Committee to hire infectious disease specialists for Zika

Christ the Redeemer
AP
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The U.S. Olympic Committee will hire two infectious disease specialists to advise potential Olympians who are worried about the Zika outbreak in Brazil.

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun sent a letter Wednesday to all possible Olympians, acknowledging the growing worries over the virus.

“I know that the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil is of concern to many of you,” Blackmun wrote. “I want to emphasize that it is to us, as well, and that your well-being in Rio this summer is our highest priority.”

The letter goes on to spell out much of the information that’s already been relayed by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The virus is spread by mosquitoes. About 20 percent of those infected display mild symptoms, including body aches and rash. But pregnant women and those considering getting pregnant have greater reason for concern because the virus can cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by an abnormally small head.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated earlier this week, U.S. soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo said if the Olympics were being held now, she wouldn’t go.

Blackmun told The Associated Press that Solo’s comments “made us realize we need to provide concise and accurate info for our athletes.”

At least one of the two infectious disease specialists will be a woman, Blackmun said.

In addition to those two hires, the USOC will post updates to its website at USOC.org/RioTravelUpdates.

The USOC’s decision to hire the specialists was first reported by USA Today.

The letter, addressed to prospective members of the 2016 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic delegation, says “no matter how much we prepare … there will always be risk associated with international competition. Each country, each venue and each discipline will present different risks and require different mitigation strategies.”

Blackmun said the USOC is monitoring the frequent updates regarding Zika. The letter makes note that “rapid testing to determine if an individual is infected is expected in the near future.”

“First and foremost, we want to make sure our athletes have accurate information because they’re concerned,” Blackmun said. “Based on what we know now, the primary threat is to unborn children.”

MORE: Zika won’t stop Olympics; only war has done that, historian says

Alex Morgan scores 12 seconds into U.S. Olympic qualifying romp (video)

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Alex Morgan wasted no time igniting the U.S. women’s soccer team’s Olympic qualifying campaign.

The striker scored the first of her two goals 12 seconds into the Americans’ CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament-opening 5-0 rout of Costa Rica on Wednesday in Frisco, Texas.

It’s believed to be the fastest goal in U.S. Soccer history, according to U.S. Soccer.

“I think we shocked Costa Rica’s confidence a little bit,” Morgan said on NBC Sports Live Extra. “We’ve been working on that play, so I’m glad that we executed it perfectly.”

Crystal DunnCarli Lloyd and Christen Press also scored for the Americans, who are ranked No. 1 in the world. Costa Rica is ranked No. 34.

“Overall, we brought the fight,” Lloyd said on Live Extra. “We’ve got to put this one to bed and move on.”

The first three goals came in the first 15 minutes.

GOAL VIDEOS: Dunn | LloydMorgan’s second | Press

The U.S. is in one of two CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament groups with Costa Rica, Mexico (ranked No. 26) and Puerto Rico (No. 108).

It plays Mexico next on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Live Extra. Mexico crushed Puerto Rico 6-0 earlier Wednesday.

The top two nations per group will advance to the tournament semifinals, and the Feb. 19 semifinal winners advance to the Rio Games in August.

The U.S. is heavily favored to qualify for Rio, where it would go for its fourth straight Olympic title. The next-best North American team is ranked No. 11 (Canada, which is in the opposite CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament group).

If the U.S. and Canada win their respective groups, they would not have to play each other to qualify for the Olympics.

The U.S. roster for Olympic qualifying includes 13 of the 23 players from the World Cup, led by Olympic champions Morgan, Lloyd and Hope Solo, who blanked Costa Rica on Wednesday.

All 15 matches of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament will be streamed live on NBC Sports Live Extra.

MORE: No Olympics for Messi, but another Argentine star striker possible

2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship Schedule

Frisco, Texas – Toyota Stadium
Houston, Texas – BBVA Compass Stadium
Times U.S. Central (U.S. Eastern in parentheses)

FIRST ROUND
Group A: USA, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Costa Rica
Group B: Canada, Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana

Wednesday, Feb. 10 (Frisco)
Mexico 6, Puerto Rico 0                                 5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
USA 5, Costa Rica 0                                    7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

Thursday, Feb. 11 (Houston)
Guatemala vs. Trinidad & Tobago                  5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
Canada vs. Guyana                                           7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

Saturday, Feb. 13 (Frisco)
Costa Rica vs. Puerto Rico                              12:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.)
USA vs. Mexico                                                 3 p.m. (4 p.m.) NBCSN at 9:30 p.m. ET

Sunday, Feb. 14 (Houston)
Guyana vs. Guatemala                                     12:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.)
Trinidad vs. Canada                                          3 p.m. (4 p.m.)

Monday, Feb. 15 (Frisco)
Mexico vs. Costa Rica                                       5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
USA vs. Puerto Rico                                          7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) LIVE on NBCSN

Tuesday, Feb. 16 (Houston)
Trinidad & Tobago vs. Guyana                         5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
Canada vs. Guatemala                                      7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

SEMIFINALS

Friday, Feb. 19 (Houston)
Group B winner vs. Group A runner-up          4:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m.) ***
Group A winner vs. Group B runner-up          7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) ***

FINAL

Sunday, Feb. 21 (Houston)
Semifinal winners                                            4 p.m. (5 p.m.) NBCSN at 11 p.m.

***USA’s semifinal, should the USA advance, will air LIVE on NBCSN