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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Nick Symmonds hopes to compete 1 more year

Nick Symmonds
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Nick Symmonds, the outspoken two-time U.S. Olympic 800m runner, said he thinks he’s going to try and compete one more season.

“I really want to make one more worlds team,” Symmonds said in a Facebook video Thursday. “I’ve just got to make sure my ankle holds up.”

Symmonds, 32, last raced May 18 and missed the Olympic Trials due to a left ankle injury. He said Thursday that he’s 100 percent healthy and running 40 miles per week.

On June 30, Symmonds said after withdrawing before the Olympic Trials that he “could possibly” compete one more year, but the decision would come down to whether his apparel sponsor, Brooks, wanted to extend his contract beyond 2016.

The 2013 World Championships silver medalist said he had accomplished all of his running goals except for winning an Olympic medal (he was fifth in 2012) and completing a marathon.

In 2015, Symmonds won his sixth U.S. 800m title but missed the world championships due to a contract dispute with USA Track and Field.

Once he retires, Symmonds has said he wants to climb the tallest mountain on every continent.

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Alpine skiing men’s World Cup season preview

KRANJSKA GORA, SLOVENIA - MARCH 09: (FRANCE OUT) Marcel Hirscher of Austria takes 2nd place, Ted Ligety of the USA takes 1st placeduring the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Men's Giant Slalom on March 09, 2013 in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia. (Photo by Stanko Gruden/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
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Marcel Hirscher must wait one more year before another shot at his first Olympic gold, making this season all about chasing more records while others continue to chase him.

The Austrian can capture his sixth straight World Cup overall title, which no man or woman has ever done.

He’s already tied with Luxembourg’s Marc Girardelli for the most overall crowns by a man and can match Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell for the non-consecutive, either-gender record of overall titles.

Hirscher, still just 27 years old, begins his campaign at the traditional season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Sunday (NBC Sports app, 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. ET; NBCSN, 9:30 p.m. ET). He has won there just once (2014) but made the podium four years running.

Hirscher is still lacking an Olympic title, but he displayed typical dominance last season, making 19 podiums in 28 World Cup starts (both career highs) with eight victories (one shy of his career high).

His World Cup overall title margin of victory — 497 points — was the most in the men’s standings since 2002.

Hirscher racked up wins in slalom, parallel slalom, giant slalom and, for the first time, a super-G. He also narrowly avoided a drone from falling onto his head mid-race.

Hirscher reached 39 career World Cup victories, sixth all-time among men. If he repeats his win total from each of the last two seasons, he will move into solo fourth, trailing legends Ingemar StenmarkHermann Maier and Alberto Tomba.

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But keep this mind — Hirscher trailed in the World Cup overall standings by 107 points on Jan. 23, when leader Aksel Lund Svindal suffered a season-ending crash in Kitzbuehel, Austria.

Svindal, a Norwegian who earned a medal of every color at the 2010 Olympics, is taking a cautious approach in returning from damaging his right knee. He will not race Saturday and isn’t yet committing to the season’s first speed races on Thanksgiving weekend.

Hirscher will get a head start on Svindal, but two rivals in technical events could also bring his overall point total down this season.

Ted Ligety, who has won every major giant slalom gold medal since 2011, returns Saturday after tearing his right ACL on Jan. 27. Ligety, 32, also skied last season after suffering three herniated disks in his back and tearing a hip labrum.

It showed. He failed to finish six straight races and missed the podium in 11 straight after winning and finishing second in his first two starts.

At his best, Ligety was superior to Hirscher in giant slaloms. The American could take a bite out of Hirscher’s points with a resurgence. In February, Ligety will try to become the first male skier to win four world championships titles in the same event.

Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen was the world’s best slalom skier last season, a title held by Hirscher the previous three years.

At 22, Kristoffersen may still be on the rise as a technical skier. Hirscher has branched out to race more super-Gs and super combineds the last few years, leaving less time to focus on his trademark technical events of giant slalom and, especially, slalom.

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