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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Katie Ledecky’s win not the most impressive swim to open nationals

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Katie Ledecky won the 800m freestyle in a rout, but a swimmer with no Olympic experience had the most impressive victory on the opening night of USA Swimming Nationals on Tuesday.

Ledecky, the four-time Rio gold medalist, clocked 8:11.50 to win her trademark race by nearly nine seconds. That clinched her spot on the team for the world championships in Budapest in July.

“It’s important to get the job done here and get on to Budapest and do what I love, which is race at those big meets,” Ledecky said on NBCSN, adding later, “I didn’t rest too much for this [meet]. It’s hard to compare, but maybe compared to the other trials/selection meets, this might be the least tapered that I’ve been.”

Mallory Comerford was undoubtedly the star of the day at nationals, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.

The rising Louisville junior won the 100m freestyle in 52.81 seconds, the second-fastest time by an American in history and No. 3 time in the world this year.

Comerford, who was 12th at the Olympic Trials, relegated Olympic champion Simone Manuel to second place by .24 on Tuesday night. Lia NealKelsi WorrellOlivia Smoliga and Katie Ledecky rounded out the top six and should be part of the 4x100m free relay pool in Budapest.

Comerford continued to improve after a breakout NCAA season, when she tied Ledecky for the NCAA 200-yard freestyle title in the same Indy pool. Comerford and Ledecky will go head-to-head in the 200m free at nationals on Wednesday.

“I’ve been really trying to figure out long course [Olympic-size pools], and it’s finally nice for it to be clicking,” Comerford told media in Indianapolis.

SWIM NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | Event Schedule/Results

The 2012 Olympic champion Nathan Adrian won the men’s 100m freestyle by one hundredth over Caeleb Dressel, repeating their one-two finish from the Olympic Trials.

“I didn’t know where they were, and if I would have looked around, I probably would have lost it,” Adrian said. “Touch the wall, and then figure out what place you got.”

Adrian clocked 47.96 seconds, ranking fourth in the world this year. Adrian and Dressel are set to be joined on the 4x100m free relay squad by Townley HaasZach AppleMichael Chadwick and Blake Pieroni.

Ryan Held, who famously broke down in tears on the Rio Olympic 4x100m free medal stand, finished seventh, missing the world team.

In the 200m butterfly, Jack Conger upset top seed Chase Kalisz, winning in 1:54.47.

Conger, who was suspended four months in 2016 as part of the Rio gas-station incident, now ranks fourth in the world this year in an event formerly dominated by Michael Phelps.

Kalisz, the Olympic 400m individual medley silver medalist, didn’t even make the world team in the 200m butterfly. He was out-touched for second place by Pace Clark by .21.

The women’s 200m fly final went to form, with Olympian Hali Flickinger taking the win by 1.11 seconds in 2:07.60. Flickinger ranks 10th in the world.

The 200m fly final was missing Olympic butterfliers Cammile Adams (not racing at nationals) and Kelsi Worrell (racing at nationals, but not the 200m fly) and Trials third-place finisher Cassidy Bayer (eliminated in morning prelims).

Joining Flickinger on the world team is Dakota Luther, a 17-year-old rising high school senior. No high schoolers made the Rio Olympic swim team.

True Sweetser and Robert Finke made their first world team by going one-two in the 1500m free.

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Sage Kotsenburg will not defend Olympic slopestyle title

Sage Kotsenburg
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Sage Kotsenburg, the first Olympic snowboard slopestyle champion, will not defend his title in PyeongChang and is finished with contest riding.

Kotsenburg, 23, said he chose to devote the rest of his career to filming snowboarding movies rather than competing. It’s a common transition in the sport, but an unusual one for a reigning Olympic gold medalist.

“It had been on my mind since literally the day I won in Sochi,” said Kotsenburg, who last competed in early 2016. “I had my heart set on stopping competing after the Olympics, and then winning puts you in such a different mindset. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do anymore. I was on a high, so pumped on competing. I would get to the contests [after Sochi], and I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t have the edge to try this new trick anymore. All the time, I’m looking at [social media] posts from other people riding in Switzerland and Whistler [Canada] filming backcountry. I thought, I want to be there right now.

“I finally said to myself, I’ve got to do what makes me happy. Competing doesn’t make me happy right now.”

Kotsenburg said relief flooded over him after telling sponsors — including Oakley, Monster, GoPro and Stance socks — he would not ride in competition anymore. He wanted to know if they would stick with him during his filming career, but he understood if they felt otherwise.

“Each one of them said we’re happy to have you on board and keep it going,” he said. “After I told them, it was so much pressure off my chest. I knew I could just go snowboarding again.”

Growing up in Park City, Kotsenburg was fixated more on snowboarding movies than following contests. Though he’ll never forget watching the U.S. sweep the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic men’s halfpipe and then meeting Ross PowersDanny Kass and J.J. Thomas as an 8-year-old.

Kotsenburg was truly a surprise Olympic champion in 2014, taking gold after going into his first Winter Games with a goal to “make snowboarding look cool.” The Park City native later said President Obama told him, “Sage, this guy was like the favorite moment of the Games.”

“Looking back on it in 30 or 40 years, I’ll remember all the hard work and stress and craziness that went into it,” Kotsenburg said. “It was so worth it in the end. It’s something that’s made me who I am today. I think about it every day.”

Kotsenburg was at best inconsistent at the Winter X Games before and after his Sochi breakout — fifth in 2010, 10th in 2011, second in 2012, 13th in 2013, 15th in 2014, fifth in 2015 and 10th in 2016. Kotsenburg’s win at the last U.S. Olympic qualifier in January 2014 marked his first trip to the top of a slopestyle podium in about nine years.

In Sochi, Kotsenburg took gold by landing a cab double cork 1260 with a Kotsenburg-invented Holy Crail grab and a back 1620 Japan Air, trying the latter trick for the first time in his life (he hasn’t tried it since). The rider known as “Second-Run Sage” did it on his first run, scoring 93.5 points.

After the Olympics, Kotsenburg capitalized on his gold. He ate a bacon gold medal given to him by Conan O’Brien, listened to Obama call him “sick and chill” and took his gold medal out of a white sock on “Mad Money” with Jim Cramer.

“Being backstage on Letterman, I was tripping,” he said. “Craziest one was definitely going to the White House and meeting Obama was insane. He said he watched the Olympics, and I had the chillest and most relaxed interview he had ever seen.”

Kotsenburg said he still needs to get a proper box to store his medal. He joked he might rather buy a manikin and hang it around its neck along with some cool outerwear.

Before what would have been the last contest of his career, Kotsenburg essentially suffered a concussion at Fenway Park in training at a big air event in February 2016. Kotsenburg said the head injury was very minor and that it did not factor into his retirement decision.

Kotsenburg spent all last winter riding in Alaska, Wyoming, Lake Tahoe, Utah and Whistler for a Snowboarder Magazine film called “Pepper.”

He plans to ride more this winter for his own film project and possibly attend the Olympics in a non-competitive capacity. 

The top slopestyle snowboarders going into PyeongChang are Canadians Mark McMorrisMax Parrot and Tyler Nicholson, Norwegians Marcus Kleveland and Stale Sandbech and American Red Gerard.

Gerard, 16, has known Kotsenburg for several years and once wore the Sochi gold medal.

“I hope [Gerard] comes home with a medal, even gold,” Kotsenburg said. “He’s got such awesome style and really respects the background of snowboarding. He’s been filming, too, and really respects that type of snowboarding. Which I respect a lot.”

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