Austria’s Marcel Hirscher wins Adelboden slalom, takes World Cup points lead

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With the clock ticking down to the start of the Olympics, every race is becomes more critical for fine-tuning things before heading to Sochi.

One skier who seems to be well dialed in is Austria’s Marcel Hirscher, who fought through the soft snow and rapidly deteriorating course conditions to win the World Cup slalom in Adelboden, Switzerland.

Hirscher, the two-time defending World Cup overall champion, lost some most of his first-run advantage at the top of the second run but was masterful carving through the gates on the steep final pitch to finish in front of Sweden’s Andre Myhrer, by 0.29 seconds. The runner-up effort was the best of the season for Myhrer and the 16th slalom podium of his career.

“It is really tough,” Hirscher said. “But I am not sure which was tougher, to ski it or prepare the course with weather at 10-plus degrees (Celsius). But it’s kind of a special race and it’s working pretty well for me.”

Teenager Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway was third, 0.66 behind Hirscher. It matched the best finish of his young career, another third-place performance in Levi, Finland on Nov. 17, and came one day after he almost collided with a television production worker who strayed on the course during Saturday’s giant slalom.

“I skied over the back of his skis,” Kristoffersen told AP. “I was definitely touching him a little bit there. (It) happens. We’re only humans.”

The victory earned Hirscher his 25th career podium placement in the discipline, making him the 12th skier in history to score as many Top 3 finishes. At 24 years and 316 days old, he is also the third youngest ever to accomplish the feat behind Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden (21 years, 270 days) and Gustav Thoeni of Italy (23 years, 336 days).

With 100 race points for victory, Hirscher now leads Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway by 23 points in the overall standings. Svindal skips slalom races.

American David Chodounsky had a strong showing, toughing out the second run to finish eighth, the second-best slalom result of his career behind Dec. 15’s seventh-place showing in Val d’Isere, France. With just two more slalom races before the Games, the 29-year-old is pleased with his progression.

“It’s a really tough sport, especially on days like today,” Chodounsky said. “It was fast and it’s the steepest pitch on the tour but for me it was solid. This year, the snow is not great and it’s very warm. The course gets rutty. In the second run it starts to get dark as the sun goes down. It’s got all sorts of tricks to throw at you. I had a couple of mistakes but if I can clean that up, it will be really good. I am happy with where I am.”

Adelboden wasn’t as kind to American stars Ted Ligety and Bode Miller.

Ligety, who caught an unlucky bump and straddled a gate during the second run of giant slalom on Saturday, skied off course again in the second run of slalom. Miller, a winner on this course in slalom in 2002, skied out in Saturday’s first run of giant slalom and then lost his race line and speed at the top of the final pitch in this race and finished 43rd, not good enough to make the Top 30 and earn a second run.

Fellow American teammates Colby Granstrom and Nolan Kasper finished 39th and 44th respectively, and did not qualify for a second run.

Germany’s Felix Neureuther, who won the Bormio slalom last Monday and was a surprise and historic winner in Saturday’s giant slalom, had his dream bid for an unprecedented technical sweep in Adelboden dashed when he straddled a gate and skied off course late in the second run. No German man has won back-to-back World Cup slalom races since Armin Bittner in 1988-89. Neureuther’s father, Christian, also won consecutive slaloms in January 1973 and January 1974.

Adelboden Men’s Slalom

1. Marcel Hirscher (AUT) 1:49.75

2. Andre Myhrer (SWE) 1:50.04

3. Henrik Kristoffersen (NOR) 1:50.41

4. Mattias Hargin (SWE) 1:50.55

5. Manfred Moelgg (ITA) 1:50.75

6. Patrick Thaler (ITA) 1:50.97

7. Markus Larsson (SWE) 1:51.06

8. David Chodounsky (USA) 1:51.45

9. Stefano Gross (ITA) 1:51.49

10. Benjamin Raich (AUT) 1:51.59

DNF. Ted Ligety (USA)

DNQ. Bode Miller (USA)

DNQ. Nolan Kasper (USA)

DNQ. Colby Granstrom (USA)

Canada’s Marie-Michele Gagnon gets 1st World Cup victory in Altenmarkt super-combined

World Figure Skating Championships women’s preview

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Ashley Wagner has not watched any of Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva‘s programs this season, but this much Wagner knows without looking:

“She is technically flawless, and if there is an athlete that we should be chasing, obviously it’s Yevgenia,” Wagner said.

Medvedeva, a 17-year-old from Moscow, is the biggest favorite across all four disciplines at next week’s world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

Wagner is the 2016 World silver medalist, the first U.S. woman on the podium in 10 years, but it would be shocking if she upgrades to gold next week. Realistically, she’s at best fighting for a silver or bronze along with Russians Anna Pogorilaya and Maria Sotskova, Canadians Kaetlyn Osmond and Gabrielle Daleman, Italian Carolina Kostner and Japan’s Mai Mihara.

Medvedeva is in her own class.

Undefeated since November 2015. Winner of her last 11 events in her first two seasons at the senior level. She can become the first woman to repeat as world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

In fact, another gold would give Medvedeva the most dominant two-season stretch by a female skater since Katarina Witt‘s stronghold in the mid-1980s.

“I really appreciate her in the sport because she is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said.

What sets Medvedeva apart is that she has been polished, from her triple-triple jump combinations and spins to her performance quality, since turning 16 in her senior debut season a year ago.

And her consistency. All other recent Russian stars — 2014 Olympic champions Adelina Sotnikova and Yulia Lipnitskaya and 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva — simply could not put together two straight world-class seasons at the senior level.

Given that history, Wagner is not fully sold on Medvedeva.

“Time will tell,” said Wagner, who has joked that she needs to skate like “a robot” to compete with Medvedeva. “She is not part of this normal cycle of Russian athletes. I feel like they have one or two seasons of dominance, and then they kind of disappear. So we will see what happens to her, but she seems to be going very strong.”

Medvedeva, whose mom was a skater, started in the sport at age 3, inspired like many by the great Yevgeny Plushenko.

Figure skating is popular and storied in Russia, but Medvedeva is rarely recognized back home, where she still spends weekends watching cartoons. She does have more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram, though.

Medvedeva’s scores from her four international competitions this season are the four highest scores in the world, all above 220 points. This despite falling at one competition, having one jump called under-rotated at another and stepping out of a landing at another.

Nobody else in next week’s field has cracked 217 points — in their careers.

At December’s Russian Championships, Medvedeva added a second triple toe loop onto a triple Salchow-triple toe loop combination, knowing she would get zero points for the superfluous jump. She did it three minutes into her free skate (with controversial music from a film about Sept. 11, 2001), when most skaters would be tired.

Medvedeva has shown disappointment when not breaking records and talked about adding a quadruple Salchow to her arsenal. She speaks some English in interviews, even though she hasn’t taken English classes in two years, according to Icenetwork.

“Sometimes I feel like I am two people: the grown-up and the kid,” she said in the fall, according to Icenetwork. “The first one is able to understand and execute difficult programs, while the other one is just like … watching cartoons all the time!”

Medvedeva was last outscored in the short program at last year’s world championships in Boston. She placed third behind Gracie Gold and Pogorilaya, with Wagner in fourth.

In the free skate, Medvedeva and Wagner climbed to gold and silver, respectively. Wagner tallied personal bests for both programs at the 2016 Worlds, yet still finished 7.47 points behind Medvedeva.

Wagner has been unable to replicate those kinds of skates this season. In two international events, her best total is 196.44 points, which seeds her eighth going into worlds. She was also beaten by surprise Karen Chen at the U.S. Championships in January.

“This year is not the year I’m planning on peaking,” Wagner said. “Next year is the year that I am like in it to kill. … This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year and even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me, I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”

As noted, the pressure is on Wagner to lead an inexperienced U.S. team of three women in Helsinki. She’ll be joined by training partner Mariah Bell and Chen. The two worlds rookies have been less impressive than Wagner internationally this season. They’re seeded 10th and 16th.

The two best results out of Wagner, Chen and Bell must add up to no more than 13, or else the U.S. will only get two women’s spots at the Olympics for the second time in the last six Winter Games.

There is an outside chance of a Russian sweep, given the second-best skater this season, Japan’s Satoko Miyahara, withdrew due to injury. Pogorilaya, the 2016 World bronze medalist, has the next two highest scores this season after Medvedeva and Miyahara.

Russia also has Sotskova, the most impressive of the first-year senior skaters.

The experienced category is led by Osmond, having her best results since debuting as a senior in 2012, and Kostner, the six-time world medalist back after two years off. They’re seeded third and fourth.

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U.S. women’s hockey players show solildarity in portraits

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The U.S. women’s hockey team is … family, powerful, united, strong, brave, together, limitless, fierce, bold, historic, ambitious, resilient, fearless and devoted.

All 23 players on the U.S. roster planning to boycott the world championship that starts in one week posted portraits on Twitter on Friday morning. Each player held a paper with a one-word descriptor.

The players plan to boycott the world championship tournament in Plymouth, Mich., unless their wage dispute with USA Hockey is settled.

The players believed they reached an agreement with USA Hockey in a 10-hour-plus meeting Monday, but USA Hockey’s later counter offer “didn’t reflect the progress of the negotiations,” according to the players’ representatives.

USA Hockey said Thursday that it will start reaching out to potential replacement players, but it still hopes to come to an agreement to field its original team in Plymouth.

“As we have maintained from the beginning, this issue is about more than the compensation of the current team: it’s about equitable treatment for female players now and in the future,” the players said in a statement Thursday. “A forward-looking agreement will benefit the next generation of players even more than the current players. For that reason, and the fact that the younger players identify with us, we are confident that they [potential replacement players] would choose not to play.”

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