Audi FIS World Cup - Women's Downhill Training

Julia Mancuso improves but U.S. women lag behind favorites in Altenmarkt downhill (video)

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The women wearing the label of Olympic medal favorites definitely looked the part.

A challenge to that supremacy from the Americans is looking less like a sure thing.

Austria’s Elisabeth Goergl and Anna Fenninger thrilled the opening crowd with a 1-2 finish ahead of overall points leader Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany and rising star Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein in the fifth downhill race of the World Cup season Saturday in Altenmarkt, Austria.

Meanwhile, the struggles continued for the U.S. women on the whole as they failed once again to reach the podium as the clock ticked to 27 days until the start of the Winter Olympics. There was a bright spot however, as Julia Mancuso put down some of her best skiing of the season and finished 13th.

The American women came into the season as the top-ranked speed unit in the world but have collectively looked lost throughout the first half of the World Cup and have fallen well short of lofty expectations.

Six U.S. women reached a World Cup podium in at least one speed event last season. None have done so this season, and two, Lindsey Vonn and Alice McKennis, are now out of Olympic consideration with knee and leg injuries.

The closest anyone has come to a podium was on Dec. 8 when Leanne Smith finished sixth in the super-G at Lake Louise on Dec. 8. Stacey Cook’s best result is a 12th-place finish in the downhill in Lake Louise on Dec. 7. Mancuso’s best effort in a speed event was her 17th-place finish in the super-G at Lake. Since the opening race of the season, the Beaver Creek downhill on Nov. 29, Laurenne Ross hadn’t finished inside the Top 22.

At the outset, it didn’t appear like things were going to be any better here. Smith and Cook, the first two Americans out of the gate, brought little speed off the steep opening pitch, scrubbed time on the first right hand turn, got no air off the hot-air jump and carried little speed into the gliding flat sections. Cook finished 21st and Smith finished tied for 24th.

That brought up Mancuso, who might have seemed least likely to have a solid performance, especially after she spent Friday in the hospital tending to her younger sister Sara, who was injured powder skiing in Altenmarkt.

But Mancuso lived up to her reputation as a big-race performer and she raised her game. Showing no ill effects or distractions from her family ordeal, she flew through the top third and took speed into the technical mid-section. That enabled her to attack the critical lower half and cross with her best finish of the season.

“It was a good run,” Mancuso told AP. “You can’t expect to change everything in one run. Now I really believe I can win a race. I feel a lot better on my equipment. I skied positive the whole run and was trying to be confident.”

Ross skied the super-G-like turns cleanly but the rest of her run was less-than aggressive. In paying the course such respect, she sacrificed time, finishing 22nd, which equaled her season’s best.

For those looking for more-drastic improvement from the U.S. and not just baby steps, the reasons this performance could be taken as disheartening are two-fold. Firstly, there are only two downhill and two super-G races left until the U.S. Olympic team is selected on Jan. 26 and to quote Yogi Berra, “It gets late early out there.”

Secondly, today’s Kalberloch represented perhaps the closest replica to the Rosa Khutor Olympic course in Sochi that women will ski on the World Cup. It opened with a full 37-degree plunge out of the start, which gets skiers up over 70 miles per hour in four seconds, and featured big jumps and huge technical turns.

In places where the Americans had difficulties, their international counterparts thrived.

Goergl, the Vancouver downhill bronze medalist, was seen by Austrian media as being in danger of not being selected for the Sochi team. She erased those doubts in spectacular fashion today. While she wasn’t clean at the top, she had beautiful turns through the shaded forest section and attacked the key lower half to take a victory which guarantees her Olympic selection by FIS criteria.

“I know I had a super run. That gives me satisfaction,” Goergl told AP. “I am glad that I had a smooth run. Winning isn’t the most important to me. What really counts is skiing well. I wasn’t able to show that last year.”

Fenninger, who had the fastest time in Thursday’s lone training run, faced near disaster on the upper level when she hit a bump that nearly dumped her on her inside shoulder. But she recovered quickly, opened a half-second lead at the midway point and attacked the late turns en route to a lead she would later relinquish to Goergl.

The story was similar for Hoefl-Riesch, who didn’t panic after making a couple mistakes in the early turns and continued to attack. She carried enough speed off the top to glide through the flats, making up time along the way. She nailed those final technical turns in the Panorama section and rocketed into the lead.

Weirather skied the first two thirds of the course even better than Hoefl-Riesch. She had the green light through the first three time intervals but took a bad line into the final long left-footed turn and lost all of her advantage, crossing .28 behind the German.

With the runner-up finish, Fenninger picked up 80 points to take the lead in the World Cup overall standings with 677 points, six more than Hoefl-Riesch and 18 more than Weirather. Hoefl-Riesch continues to lead the downhill standings with 325 points.

Racing will continue here on Sunday with the first super-combined competition of the season.

Altenmarkt-Zauchensee Women’s Downhill

1-Elisabeth Goergl (AUT) 1:47.45

2-Anna Fenninger (AUT) 1:48.01

3-Maria Hoefl-Riesch (GER) 1:48.08

4-Tina Weirather (LIE) 1:48.36

5-Nicole Hosp (AUT) 1:48.47

6-Larisa Yurkiw (CAN) 1:48.58

7-Carolina Ruiz Castillo (ESP) 1:48.59

8-Marianne Kaurmann-Abderhalden (SUI) 1:48.62

9-Lotte Smiseth Sejersted (NOR) 1:48.72

10-Regina Sterz (AUT) 1:48.73

13-Julia Mancuso (USA) 1:48.84

22-Stacey Cook (USA) 1:49.92

23-Laurenne Ross (USA) 1:49.93

T25-Leanne Smith (USA) 1:50.06

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North Korea could qualify for PyeongChang Olympics in pairs figure skating

Bronze medalists Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik of North Korea pose for photographers during the victory ceremony of the Pairs event of Figure Skating competition at Makomanai Indoor Skating Rink at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, northern Japan, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
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Perhaps the most intriguing result of the just-completed Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, when it comes to looking ahead to the PyeongChang Olympics, came in pairs figure skating.

To no surprise, China took the top two spots. But the bronze medalists from North Korea turned heads.

Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik tallied 177.40 points, easily distancing pairs from South Korea, Japan and Australia for the last place on the podium.

With that score, it appears Ryom and Kim became the first North Korean athletes to be favored to qualify for the PyeongChang Olympics, though they likely can’t seal the deal for another seven months.

One of the biggest international Olympic storylines over the next 11 months is whether North Korea will be present at the PyeongChang Winter Games.

Despite winning at least four medals at every Summer Games since boycotting Seoul 1988, North Korea didn’t have any athletes at the Sochi Olympics and just two at Vancouver 2010. There’s no guarantee North Korea can qualify any athletes for PyeongChang.

There is also the question of another potential boycott of a South Korea-hosted Olympics, but North and South Korea have shown solidarity at recent Games.

The nations marched together under one flag at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Sydney and Athens. In Rio, North and South Korean gymnasts posed for a selfie together. And North Korea did compete in the two Asian Games hosted by South Korea in the last 30 years, in 2002 and 2014.

Enter Ryom and Kim. Their Asian Winter Games pairs score was a whopping 20-point improvement on their tally from the 2016 Four Continents Championships, their only other recent major international event. North Korean athletes don’t typically compete often internationally.

Ryom and Kim are still a ways off from vying for global podiums (177.40 would have placed 14th at the 2016 Worlds).

But with their Asian Winter Games result, the North Koreans are suddenly favorites to qualify for the PyeongChang Olympics, should they enter the last qualifying event in Germany in September.

Here’s how it works:

A maximum of 20 pairs can qualify for the Olympics, beginning at the world championships next month, with no more than three spots per country.

At worlds, 16 of those 20 Olympic quota spots for 2018 will be filled.

If the results hold anything close to form, those 16 quota spots will be spread among Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the U.S.

After worlds, four qualifying spots will remain available. Those quota spots will be decided at the last Olympic qualifier, Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, in late September.

The final four spots can only be attained by countries not already qualified in each event. And only one spot is available per country.

If one excludes Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the U.S., here are the highest-scoring pairs this season via the International Skating Union (and thus the early favorites for Nebelhorn):

  1. Duskova/Bidar (CZE) — 189.09
  2. Ziegler/Kiefer (AUT) — 165.63
  3. Suto/Boudreau-Audet (JPN) — 164.96
  4. Alexandrovskaya/Windsor (AUS) — 159.26

The North Koreans would slot in second place in those standings with their Asian Games score of 177.40.

What’s more, Boudreau-Audet and Alexandrovskaya still needed to fulfill citizenship requirements to be eligible to compete in PyeongChang, as of 2016 reports. If either can’t, then the North Koreans’ path to PyeongChang gets that much easier.

Four years ago, a different North Korean pair missed qualifying a Sochi Olympic quota spot by .99 of a point at Nebelhorn Trophy.

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Snow volleyball hopes to stake claim in Winter Olympics

In this March 2016 photo released by Chaka2 GmbH, Austria's Michael Leeb, serving, and Florian Schnetzer face off against Poland's Michal Matyja and Rafal Matusiak, far court, during a snow volleyball match in Wagrain-Kleinarl, Austria. The sport's international governing body hopes tournaments from the Alps to the Andes will earn snow volleyball a spot in the Olympics and make volleyball the first sport to be played in both the Winter and Summer Games. (Thomas Leskoschek/Chaka2 GmbH via AP)
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Beach volleyball is moving to the mountains and swapping its sand for snow.

A spinoff of the sun-splashed sport familiar to Summer Olympic fans and seaside frolickers, snow volleyball is spreading from the Alps to the Andes and making a run at the Winter Games. If all goes well, volleyball officials say, their sport would be the first to appear in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

“Our key message is to be the No. 1 family sport in the world,” Fabio Azevedo, the general director of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think it fits perfectly to our plan.”

Itself an offshoot of the more traditional indoor game, beach volleyball has grown into one of biggest attractions of the Summer Games, thanks no doubt to the bikini and boardshorts uniforms and the party atmosphere.

Now the FIVB wants a piece of the Winter Olympics, and it sees snow volleyball as the way in. With a European tour already established, volleyball officials have set out an agenda that would bring the new snow sport to Asia, Argentina and the United States with an eye toward approval as a demonstration sport at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

“They want to push it ultimately to the Winter Olympics,” said Martin Kaswurm, whose company manages the Snow Volleyball European Tour. “It’s not something we put into the mouths of the FIVB. It’s something they had as a goal themselves.”

The continental circuit, which kicks off this weekend in the Czech ski resort of Spindleruv Mlyn, was officially sanctioned by volleyball’s European governing body for the first time last winter. Azevedo said the goal is to have a world tour next year and a fully-fledged world championship in 2019. A spot in the 2020 Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne — where the FIVB has its headquarters — is also on the federation’s radar.

From there, snow volleyball could apply for status as a demonstration sport at the 2022 Winter Olympics. Azevedo hopes to have at least an informal display at the Winter Games next year in Pyeongchang, South Korea, even if it’s just stringing up a net in a plaza somewhere.

“We definitely want to be there and show people what snow volleyball is like,” he said. “Being really conservative, in order to climb this mountain step by step, I think the Olympics in 2026.”

While Olympic ice hockey and field hockey have different rules, different equipment and different governing bodies, snow volleyball is almost identical to the beach game. The tactics and rules are also similar to the two-a-side beach sport, and many of the competitors come from beach volleyball.

“Basically, we’ve just changed the surface,” Kaswurm said. “They only thing different is that they wear soccer shoes.”

The atmosphere also resembles beach volleyball, with disc jockeys cranking out music and cheerleaders — in lederhosen instead of bikinis — pumping up the crowd .

“Music, it’s inside our DNA, man,” Azevedo said.

Usually there is a hot tub courtside, and traditionally the winners will jump in after their matches to celebrate (and warm up).

“If you’re brave enough and have your swimsuit — or not — you can just jump in. And with the drinks and other friends you can enjoy the view on the center court and all the mountains around,” said Bobb Kufa, the 2016 Czech beach champion. “Pure happiness.”

Austrian national champion Flo Schnetzer said the crowd especially loves the post-match hot tub celebration.

“The people laugh when they see people in their underwear jumping into the whirlpool,” he said. “It’s so much fun to play in such an amazing atmosphere and to play in such an amazing place. The crowd is really crazy; they love it. They like to party and they like to celebrate in the mountains.”

But playing on a mountain has its own challenges.

Mostly, because the snow is slicker than sand there is more of a premium on players who can read and react quickly than on tall ones who can block. It’s also easier to jump on the compacted snow, so shorter players can be more effective blockers and height is less of an advantage.

“Snow volleyball is for smart and flexible players,” Kufa said. “All the moves are much slower. That means you have to be smarter – especially in defense. You have to decide the direction you want to go, and that’s all. You can’t take it back – otherwise you find yourself on your back with the shoes up to the air.”

The thinner air also slows the players down.

“You can really feel it,” Schnetzer said. “It’s really intense after just a short time. So you need to be physically really well prepared to be able to play on the mountains.”

And let’s not forget the cold.

“It is a mountain, so you should be ready for weather changes and be prepared for all kinds of weather,” Kufa said.

So far, the tournaments have been scheduled at resorts — with free admission — as something for the skiers to watch when they need a break. For the players at an event in Iran earlier this month, it was a quick diversion from the Kish Island beach event scheduled the following week.

That’s one big advantage snow volleyball has over other sports trying to join the Olympic program: It already has a strong federation and a ready pool of potential players from the beach game, including 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Martins Plavins of Latvia and the top beach players from several European countries.

Three-time Olympian Phil Dalhausser, a 2008 gold medalist, said he would wait until his beach career is over to give it a try.

“I would be too afraid of hurting myself,” said Dalhausser, who was born in Switzerland but has spent most of his life near the beaches of Florida and California. “The snow probably would be pretty slippery.”

Dalhausser said anything that gets people to watch and play any form of volleyball is good for the sport. And once fans see snow volleyball, Azevedo said, they will be hooked — just like those who have come to follow the beach version every four years at the Summer Olympics.

“Both of them are two parties,” Azevedo said. “But if you organize a party in your home, it’s probably different than a party I am organizing in my home. So, there are two different energies. But I can tell you you are going to enjoy both of them.”

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