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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Blake Griffin will miss Olympics, report says

Blake Griffin
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For the second straight Olympics, Blake Griffin will not be able to join Team USA due to injury, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Los Angeles Clippers power forward will be out several months due to his left quad injury, according to the newspaper.

Griffin was originally chosen for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team but withdrew due to a torn meniscus, opening a spot for Anthony Davis.

Davis is also expected to miss the Rio Games due to injury.

Other power forwards on the U.S. finalist list released in January are LaMarcus Aldridge, Kenneth Faried, Draymond Green and Kevin Love.

Love is the only name from that list of healthy players with Olympic experience. Faried is the only player from that list who suited up at the 2014 World Cup, starting all nine games.

At London 2012, the U.S. started NBA small forwards LeBron James and Kevin Durant at the forward spots in all eight games, with another small forward, Carmelo Anthony, bringing similar versatility off the bench.

MORE: Why Candace Parker was left off Olympic team

Rio Olympic cauldron likely to be located near Plaza Maua

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Mayor Eduardo Paes says he wants the Olympic cauldron to burn in Rio de Janeiro’s revitalized port area.

The cauldron will be lit at Maracana Stadium during the Opening Ceremony on Aug. 5, and will spend the night there before traveling to a permanent home.

Mario Andrada, spokesman for the Rio organizing committee, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the cauldron will be placed in the port area, but not in the heart of the renovated port area known as Plaza Maua.

“It will be close to Plaza Maua, but not exactly in Plaza Maua,” Andrada said. He said it was likely to be located near the Candelaria Church, which is near the plaza.

“Don’t get me into a fight with the mayor,” Andrada added.

Paes said he hoped the new plaza would be a center for outdoor entertainment during the Games, including performance stages, musical attractions, and large-screen televisions.

“It seems that the Maracana Stadium has limitations,” Paes said, adding that moving out of the Maracana “is good because it democratizes the access to the cauldron.”

The new plaza and downtown Rio are far from the heart of the Games in suburban Barra da Tijuca. It is also an area not usually visited by tourists.

The Olympic flame arrives from Greece and Switzerland on Tuesday in the capital Brasilia, to be carried off the plane by IOC member Carlos Nuzman, the head of the Rio organizing committee.

The flame then goes to the Planalto presidential palace where it is expected to be greeted by President Dilma Rousseff.

Andrada said IOC President Thomas Bach and other top IOC officials would not be at the ceremony.

Rousseff is facing impeachment charges and could be suspended from office as early as May 11, turning over authority to Vice President Michel Temer.

Temer, himself, could also face impeachment proceedings and has a scandal-tainted career.

PHOTOS: Olympic flame visits Acropolis, 1896 Olympic Stadium