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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White, Kim lead Olympic snowboard team; gold medalist left off

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The 26-member U.S. Olympic snowboard team was named Tuesday, headlined by Shaun WhiteKelly Clark and Chloe Kim.

White, Clark and Kim — as well as Olympic medalists Jamie Anderson and Lindsey Jacobellis — automatically qualified for the team earlier this season.

The biggest news Tuesday was in the omissions. The following snowboarders failed to make the PyeongChang roster:

Hannah Teter — 2006 Olympic halfpipe champion
Seth Wescott — 2006, 2010 Olympic snowboard cross champion
Nate Holland — Seven-time X Games snowboard cross champion
Alex Deibold — 2014 Olympic snowboard cross bronze medalist

Teter, Wescott, Holland and Deibold all competed in Olympic qualifiers, but none ranked among the top four Americans in their events this season.

MORE: U.S. Olympic roster now more than 200 athletes

The full U.S. Olympic snowboard team:

Halfpipe
Kelly Clark — 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014 Olympian
Arielle Gold — 2014 Olympian
Chloe Kim
Maddie Mastro
Ben Ferguson
Chase Josey
Jake Pates
Shaun White — 2006, 2010, 2014 Olympian

Kim is the gold-medal favorite. White is among the favorites along with Scotty James of Australia and Ayumu Hirano of Japan. The U.S. women could sweep the podium.

Big Air/Slopestyle
Jamie Anderson — 2014
Jessika Jenson — 2014
Hailey Langland
Julia Marino
Chris Corning
Red Gerard
Kyle Mack
Ryan Stassel — 2014

The U.S. women could sweep either the big air or slopestyle podium, too. The U.S. swept the first Olympic slopestyle titles in Sochi with Anderson and the now-retired Sage Kotsenburg. Big air makes its Olympic debut in PyeongChang.

Snowboard Cross
Faye Gulini — 2010, 2014
Lindsey Jacobellis — 2006, 2010, 2014
Rosie Mancari
Meghan Tierney
Nick Baumgartner — 2010, 2014
Jonathan Cheever
Mick Dierdorff
Hagen Kearney

Jacobellis is a five-time world champion and 10-time X Games champion but owns just one Olympic medal, and it’s a silver. She finished second and then won the next two World Cups to start this season to clinch her fourth Olympic berth.

Parallel Giant Slalom
A.J. Muss
Mike Trapp

The U.S. last earned an Alpine snowboarding medal in 2006 and isn’t favored to make the podium in PyeongChang.

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VIDEO: Danny Davis suffers scary crash in Olympic qualifier

Larry Nassar to receive sentence Wednesday

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A judge said a Michigan sports doctor who assaulted Olympic gymnasts and other female athletes will get his sentence Wednesday, the seventh day of an extraordinary court hearing.

More than 150 women and girls have talked in court about being molested by Larry Nassar or had their statements read by others. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina will hear a few more Wednesday before sentencing Nassar in Lansing, Michigan.

He faces a minimum prison term of 25 to 40 years for assaulting victims with his hands. Nassar worked for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, which trains the best gymnasts.

An 18-year-old, Emily Morales, said she believes in forgiveness. She looked at Nassar and asked him to apologize. He did. She replied with, “Thank you.”

Also Tuesday, 2010 World Championships silver medalist Mattie Larson described being sexually assaulted by Nassar and gave an unflattering portrayal of the Karolyi training ranch in Texas.

Larson said the ranch was very isolated (full video here).

She called it the “perfect environment” for Nassar and abusive coaches “to thrive.” USA Gymnastics last week said the ranch would no longer serve as the national training center.