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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John Shuster, 30 pounds lighter, rallies for 4th Olympic curling berth

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John Shuster is going to a fourth Olympics. It’s one more chance to prove Urban Dictionary wrong.

Shuster, 30 pounds lighter since his second straight Olympic failure in Sochi, led a team that beat Heath McCormick‘s squad at the U.S. Olympic Trials finals in Omaha on Saturday night.

Shuster, Tyler GeorgeMatt Hamilton and John Landsteiner lost the opener of a best-of-three finals series on Thursday.

They came back to deliver in a pair of must-win games, 9-4 on Friday night and 7-5 on Saturday, after spending each day at the Omaha Zoo.

The new-look Shuster — leaner and, at least this weekend, clutch — would astonish those who know him by scenes at the last two Olympics.

After taking bronze in 2006 as a role player, he led the last two U.S. Olympic teams to 2-7 records in 2010 and in 2014. Last place in Vancouver, where he was benched after an 0-4 start. Next to last place in Sochi.

After the last Olympics, the former bartender from Chisholm, Minn., was left off USA Curling’s 10-man high performance team.

He took it as motivation to get in shape.

Shuster, a father of a 2- and a 4-year-old who once said, “If I don’t have pizza three or four times a week, I’m not happy,” now totes meal replacement shakes. He’s starting to enjoy Olympic lifting.

Shuster, George, Hamilton and Landsteiner, all absent from that USA Curling high performance list, formed their own team. They became Team USA in their first season together and represented the Stars and Stripes at worlds in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Their results — fourth, third and fifth —  marked the best string of U.S. men’s or women’s finishes at that level in a decade.

Shuster is set to join Debbie McCormick as the only Americans to curl at four Olympics. The sport was part of the first Winter Games in 1924, then absent as a medal sport until 1998.

“I don’t think it’s about the four Olympics for me,” Shuster said on NBCSN. “What this is about — and what I’m about — is getting my teammates to now. I have two new Olympians on this team, and I know how special that is.”

George, the 35-year-old vice skip for Shuster, led a team that lost to Shuster in the 2010 Olympic Trials final. The liquor store manager from Duluth, Minn., is going to his first Winter Games.

As is the 28-year-old Hamilton, whose younger sister qualified for PyeongChang earlier Saturday.

Landsteiner, a 27-year-old corrosion engineer, played with Shuster since 2011, including in Sochi.

Alternate Joe Polo can go 12 years between Olympic appearances after taking bronze on that Torino team.

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MORE: U.S. Winter Olympic Trials broadcast schedule

Katie Ledecky wins race by 54 seconds, breaks record

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Katie Ledecky is back at Stanford and back to pulverizing distance races.

The sophomore and five-time Olympic champion won a 1,650-yard freestyle by 54.45 seconds at a meet at Texas A&M on Saturday night.

The runner-up was in a different heat; Ledecky won her heat by 1:02.16.

Ledecky lowered her own American record, clocking 15:03.31. She had the previous mark of 15:03.92 set last Nov. 20.

Ledecky had every swimmer lapped in the 25-yard pool before the halfway point and ended up lapping everyone twice.

The men also raced a 1,650 on Saturday. The winner clocked 15:18.95, which was 15.64 seconds slower than Ledecky’s time.

Full results are here.

The 1,650 is the longest race on the NCAA program, while the longest race at the Olympics and world championships is the 1500m.

The No. 2 woman all-time in the 1,650 is triple 2008 Olympic medalist Katie Hoff, a full 21.04 seconds slower.

Ledecky owns the 1500m world record, too, 13.4 seconds faster than any other woman in history.

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MORE: Michael Phelps’ discussion with Katie Ledecky after 2017 Worlds