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Olympic men’s downhill many things, but fair isn’t one of them

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SOCHI — Here’s the thing you can feel, really feel, when watching Bode Miller ski the downhill: He’s on the edge. He’s pushing the edge. In his words, he’s pushing the line. All of the downhill skiers are but maybe you feel it a little more with Miller. He’s on the very edge.

The edge of what? Well, that’s a little bit harder to pinpoint. He’s always on the edge of a crash, of course, but it feels even more dangerous than that. It’s like he and the other downhillers are on the edge of something disastrous, something calamitous, something hard to put into words.

“Hhhhh!” the person next to me sounds off five or six times while Miller skis — the sound of catching breath. “Huhhh,” she inhales when he’s turning and looks as if he’s about to flip. “Huhhh!” she inhales when he crashes into a gate. “Huhhh!” she inhales when it seems like he’s about to go bouncing off the course and, possibly, into the outer atmosphere never to be seen again. It’s like a sustained two-minute horror movie.

VIDEO: Comparing Bode’s run to Mayer’s

The alpine downhill is, perhaps, the marquee event of the Games because of that “Huhhh” sound, because of the feeling in the pit of the stomach, because even with all the thrilling jumps and blazing speed around the Games, it is the sport that grabs your inside for a few thrilling seconds. And then it’s over.

That means: Over. There’s one run down the mountain. That’s all. In a sports world of second chances and efforts to make things even for everybody, the downhill is thoroughly and unapologetically unjust and biased. You get your turn. If you catch a bad break on the light, or the wind changes direction, or the course is chewed up for your run, or the weather takes a bad turn … you deal with it. There’s no second chance.

And because of this: We are on a 25-year run of mostly random Olympic champions. The greatest downhill skiers of the last quarter century are probably, in no particular order: Austrians Michael Walchhofer, Stefan Eberharter and the legendary Hermann Maier (the Herminator); the great Swiss skier Didier Cuche; fellow Swiss skier Franz Heinzer who won three consecutive World Cup downhill titles; France’s Luc Alphand who would become a race car driver; Norway’s current genius of the downhill Aksel Lund Svindal and, heck, let’s throw in Bode MIller because so many downhill skiers are in awe of his guts and will.

Here’s one thing that is true of all nine of those men who have dominated the downhill for a quarter century.

MORE: Margin calls — U.S. talks Alpine variables

Not one of them won an Olympic downhill gold medal.

It’s pretty wild, if you think about it. It would be like taking the nine fastest sprinters of the last 25 years and not one of them wins an Olympic gold in the 100m. The Olympic downhill was once the place to elevate the greatest downhill skiers — Franz Klammer, Jean Claude Killy, Toni Sailer, Bernhard Russi — into legendary figures.

MORE: Bode Miller disappointed, but dealing

But now — randomness rules. In Torino in 2006, for instance, France’s Antoine Deneriaz won gold. It was the only international downhill race he ever won. The great Michael Walchhofer, two-time defending World Cup champion, settled for the silver, the only downhill medal he ever won.

In 1998, France’s Jean-Luc Cretier won the downhill. It was HIS only international victory. Hermann Maier, like more than a dozen others, crashed on the seventh turn and could not finish. Maier won gold medals in the super-G and the giant slalom in his career. But the downhill always eluded the Herminator.

In 1994 it was American Tommy Moe, and, right, he never won a World Cup downhill race either. Franz Heinzer — who, as mentioned, had won three World Cup titles in a row — crashed. Two years earlier, Heinzer finished sixth.

Sunday, everyone was looking to Bode and Svindal and Adrien Theaux of France. They are the best in the world. Miller was the most intriguing of the bunch; though he’s 36 and has been written off, he had been awe inspiring in training. Two out of three sessions, he had finished with the fastest training time. After his breathtaking Saturday session, Kjetil Jansrud of Norway issued a quote on Miller’s run was blunt and to the point: “There’s not much to say besides it was epic.”

“It’s a f-ing real course,” Miller explained, as only Miller can explain.

MORE: Matthias Mayer restores Austrian pride

Then, Sunday, a 23-year-old named Matthias Mayer went out early on that bleepin’ real course and put up a pretty good time. He didn’t think it was THAT good a time, but then nobody really expected much of him. Mayer is the son of Helmut Mayer, the 1988 silver medalist in the super-G, and he’s considered a bit of a skiing phenom but so far he had not done much in the downhill. He had never won an international race.

Miller went four skiers later. He would say something about the sun going down on him and that causing some issues. He would say that the middle of the course just slowed down. Then, this is the deal with the downhill. No mercy. He was faster than Mayer at the top of the track but he slowed, he had a brush with a gate, and he simply could not find enough speed. His run certainly FELT dangerous. But it was a half second slow.

Svindal went shortly after Miller. He too could not find enough speed to get on the medal stand. Theaux followed and could not come close. The only one who did come close to Mayer was Italian Christof Innerhofer who is worth mentioning because he’s also an Armani swimsuit and ski wear model, plays the stock market, and takes painkillers for his back every single day so he can continue to ski. THAT is a downhill skier. He fell six-hundredths of a second short.

MORE: What makes Bode great after all these years?

And the times got slower and slower after that. Mayer won gold. It made him the fourth man since 1994 to win his first downhill event at the Winter Olympics.

“It’s tough when you have to judge yourself because the clock doesn’t really seem to judge you fairly,” Miller said when it ended.

That’s the downhill at the Olympics. It’s thrilling. It’s terrifying. It’s magnificent.

And it does not even pretend to be fair.

Karen Chen breaks U.S. Champs scoring record; Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold trail

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KANSAS CITY — A skater broke the U.S. Championships women’s short program scoring record Thursday night, but it wasn’t Ashley Wagner or Gracie Gold.

Karen Chen, a 17-year-old former junior star who struggled the last two years, tallied 72.82 points at the Sprint Center to lead going into Saturday’s free skate (8 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Mirai Nagasu, a 2010 Olympian, is second, .87 of a point behind.

That leaves Wagner and Gold, who combined to win the last five U.S. titles, in third and fifth, respectively.

This is concerning for Wagner (1.88 behind Chen) and Gold (7.97 behind) given U.S. Figure Skating can send three women to worlds in two months. That selection will be made this weekend, primarily — but not totally — based off U.S. Championships results.

Tessa Hong is in fourth place, but at 14 years old is too young for senior worlds.

Full results are here.

Though Wagner and Gold are usually higher placed, the biggest surprise was Chen.

“My body’s still trembling right now,” she said, two hours after her performance.

Chen skated a clean program Thursday, rare for her in the last couple of seasons. Chen burst onto the scene as a 15-year-old two years ago, finishing third at nationals behind Wagner and Gold.

She was too young to be selected for the 2015 Worlds team. Little has been heard from Chen since.

She dropped to eighth at the 2016 U.S. Championships and came into Kansas City as the seventh-ranked U.S. woman this season. Struggling to find comfortable boots — a common skater problem — has plagued her. She went through 14 pairs in a four-month stretch.

“Everyone has doubts, and I certainly do as well,” said Chen, who choreographed her short program. “But I just kept pushing and telling myself that I’m gaining more experience, I’m learning about everything in the process and I’m just going to keep getting better.”

Wagner bounced back from her last outing — her worst Grand Prix finish in 25 career starts — with a decent program. She needed to save a double Axel near the end of her short. The 2016 World silver medalist was the pre-event favorite.

“People do not understand how difficult of a position I am in,” said Wagner, a 25-year-old bidding to become the oldest U.S. women’s champion in 90 years. “It might seem like I’m on top of the world, or second from being top of the world, but this is a very tough position to be in. It’s mentally been weighing on my shoulders all season. To be able to come out and show people I am a fighter, I’m really proud of that.”

Gold needed to show a fighting spirit given her well-publicized disaster of a fall season. And she did. Her only miss in the short program was doubling a planned triple flip.

“I can feel a huge improvement as a skater. I think everyone can see it,” Gold said. “I have made comebacks before. This doesn’t feel like a major comeback in some ways, because I felt pretty solid. … A long program is worth a lot of points, and I can certainly deliver some good long programs. I kind of feel like I’m due for a good one.”

If Gold doesn’t improve in the free skate, she could be left off the worlds team for the first time in her senior career. However, Gold believes her strong credentials in recent seasons merit consideration.

“We’ve seen different controversies where people aren’t on the [nationals] podium, and they’re still selected for events,” Gold said. “Michelle Kwan has not gone to nationals and been selected for an Olympic team [in 2006]. I believe that I deserve to be on the world team, but I’m not on the selection committee. Of course, every athlete feels like they should be on the world team.”

Earlier Thursday, the pairs short program produced surprise leaders.

The U.S. Championships continue Friday with the short dance and men’s short program. A full broadcast schedule is here.

MORE: U.S. Figure Skating boss wants Russia out of PyeongChang

Women’s Short Program
1. Karen Chen — 72.82
2. Mirai Nagasu — 71.95
3. Ashley Wagner — 70.94
4. Tessa Hong — 65.02
5. Gracie Gold — 64.85

 

Gwen Jorgensen pregnant, to sit out 2017 triathlon season

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 20: USA's Gwen Jorgensen followed by Switzerland's Nicola Spirig Hug (L) compete in the running portion of the women's triathlon at Fort Copacabana during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 20, 2016.(Photo by Jeff Pachoud-Pool/Getty Images)
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Olympic triathlon champion Gwen Jorgensen is pregnant and will not compete this year.

“Just kind of take this year a little bit easier,” Jorgensen said in a video posted on Facebook on Thursday.

The baby is due Aug. 3, according to Jorgensen’s social media.

Jorgensen, 30, became the first U.S. Olympic triathlon champion in Rio after going in as the heavy favorite. She has said for months that she planned to take time off to have a baby before returning to defend her Olympic title at Tokyo 2020.

Swiss Nicola Spirig, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist and 2016 silver medalist, is reportedly expecting a child in May.

In Jorgensen and Spirig’s absences, the top triathletes going into the season are defending world champion Flora Duffy of Bermuda, U.S. Olympians Katie Zaferes and Sarah True and Britons Vicky Holland and Helen Jenkins.

Jorgensen’s last competition was the New York City Marathon on Nov. 6, when she finished 14th in her first running race longer than 10 miles.

The World Triathlon Series kicks off in Abu Dhabi the first weekend of March.

MORE: Triathlon federation boss wants Olympic races shortened