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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Qatar’s Barshim sets season’s best high jump record in Birmingham

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Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim, who astonished the track and field world with his non-traditional hurdling technique on his way to becoming the reigning world champion in high jump this August, one-upped himself in Birmingham when he soared over the bar set to 2.40 meters. That’s just a smidge over 7 feet, 10 inches!

The men’s outdoor high jump world record is currently 2.45m, set by Cuba’s Javier Sotomayor in 1993.

At the 2017 Worlds, the 6-foot-2 Barshim cleared the bar at about 6 feet, 4 inches with his now famous feet-first maneuver.

At Birmingham’s Diamond League event his technique may have been conventional, but his final leap was no less breathtaking.

After trading jumps with Syria’s Majed Aldin Ghazal up to 2.35m, Ghazal decided to bow out, but the Qatari continued on. With the meet already won, Barshim raised the bar to 2.40m.

“I knew I had that jump in me but I needed that pressure on my shoulders,” Barshim said. “I love it here. I had the [meet] record here from 2014 and I also won in Birmingham last year so it is a lucky place for me.”

The 2.40m final jump for Barshim registered as a meet and season record. After climbing down off the landing pad, Barshim’s fellow jumping competitors mobbed him in celebration.

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MORE: Great Britain’s Mo Farah races and wins final track race in home country

Great Britain’s Mo Farah races and wins final track race in home country

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Great Britain’s 4-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah raced his final race on a U.K. track surface in Birmingham, winning the 3000m, as he crossed the line in 7 minutes 38.64 seconds in the final Diamond League event of the day.

Spain’s Adel Mechaal nipped at Farah’s heels heading into the final 200m, but the Brit’s kick, and the ovation from the home crowd, propelled Farah to victory.

“[The fans] have been amazing. This is what it is all about. This is what we dream of,” Farah said after the race.

At 34, Farah’s plans are to leave the 400m loop behind to pursue road racing in 2018.

“I now have to see what I will do on the road. I don’t think I’ll have the same pressure so I’ll go and enjoy it,” Farah said. “Running was a hobby when I was younger but it has become a job and I love it. It can be hard when you get the pressure but the roads will be something completely different.”

Immediately preceding Farah’s win in Birmingham, Allyson Felix of the U.S. finished second in the women’s 400m final behind Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain.

“It has been a long few weeks so I was feeling tired out there so I just wanted to come out here and try to get it done but I came up just short,” Felix said. “Everyone is tired from London but I came and gave it my best effort.

“I am not sure about any future races this season, I am going to see how I recover from this.”

Earlier this month, Felix finished behind Naser when she took bronze in the 400m at the 2017 IAAF World Championships, where Phyllis Francis of the U.S. won gold, running a personal best 49.92 seconds. Francis finished fourth in Birmingham behind another U.S. middle distance athlete, Courtney Okolo who got the bronze.

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