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.

Federica Pellegrini hints at retirement after beating Katie Ledecky

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The stylish Federica Pellegrini is going out on top.

The Italian superstar said after beating Katie Ledecky in the world championships 200m freestyle that she believed it would be the last 200m free of her career at the highest level of swimming.

Pellegrini, a 28-year-old fashion lover, would leave as the greatest women’s 200m freestyler ever.

Her 200m free world record from the 2009 World Championships — where Pellegrini was the main attraction in Rome — is the longest-standing mark in women’s swimming.

Pellegrini burst onto the scene by taking Olympic silver in 2004 one week after turning 16 years old. She was dubbed the “Lioness of Verona” because she used to hang pictures of lions up in her room and watch “The Lion King.”

She remains the youngest Italian to earn an individual Olympic medal in any sport.

Pellegrini then captured gold at Beijing 2008, breaking the world record in the first round and the final and becoming Italy’s first female Olympic swimming gold medalist.

Pellegrini missed the Olympic podium in 2012 and 2016 but among her four Olympics won world 200m free medals every odd-numbered year from 2005 through 2017. No other swimmer has earned a world medal in one event seven times.

Pellegrini is so highly regarded in Italy that the nation’s daily sports newspaper, Gazzetta dello Sport, honored her twice as the world female athlete of the year in 2009 and 2011. She is the only Italian athlete — male or female — to receive the global honor twice from Gazzetta, which last year bestowed a special “legend” award to her and Olympic Alpine skiing champion Alberto Tomba.

Pellegrini said as far back as 2014 that she planned to retire after the Rio Games to start a family with longtime boyfriend and swimmer Filippo Magnini. But after a post-Olympic break she was reported in Italian media this spring to say she eyed the 2020 Tokyo Games.

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Katie Ledecky beaten in 200m free at world championships (video)

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Katie Ledecky didn’t feel like herself. She didn’t look it, either, as another swimmer chased her down.

Ledecky lost an individual final at a major international meet for the first time in 14 tries, taking silver in the 200m freestyle at the world championships in Budapest on Wednesday.

Italian world-record holder Federica Pellegrini won in 1:54.73, which was .04 slower than Ledecky’s semifinal time Tuesday.

Ledecky and Australian Emma McKeon tied for silver in 1:55.18.

Ledecky had won all 13 of her individual finals at the Olympics, world championships and Pan Pacific Championships before Wednesday.

“I just didn’t feel really like myself in the middle of that race,” Ledecky said on NBCSN after going slower in an individual final than in early rounds for the first time at a major international meet. “It felt like I was scrambling a little bit at the end. That hurts a little but, but I’m going to come back stronger and be really good in that event the next couple of years.”

In other events, South African Chad le Clos went out hard and held on to win the 200m butterfly in 1:53.33. That time would have beaten rival Michael Phelps by .03 in Rio. It was Le Clos’ fastest since upsetting Phelps at the 2012 Olympics.

The U.S. mixed medley relay team lowered the world record in the preliminary heats and the final Wednesday, beating Australia by 2.65 seconds.

China’s Sun Yang failed in a bid for a fourth straight world title in the 800m free. He finished fifth, eight seconds behind Italian winner Gabriele Detti.

Brit Adam Peaty repeated as world champion in the 50m breaststroke, a non-Olympic event, after lowering his world record in the prelims and semis.

But the women’s 200m free was the showcase event Wednesday.

McKeon led Ledecky by .01 after 150 meters, but the veteran Pellegrini surged past both swimmers with the fastest final length by seven tenths of a second. Ledecky told media in Budapest that she didn’t have “that extra gear” that she normally summons.

Ledecky’s quest to match Missy Franklin‘s female record of six gold medals at a single worlds is now over. She can still win five gold medals this week.

Ledecky has the 4x200m freestyle relay Thursday, where the U.S. is a heavy favorite, and the 800m freestyle on Friday and Saturday, where she holds the 13 fastest times in history.

Ledecky has been between one and two seconds slower than her times at the Rio Olympics in three events at worlds. This doesn’t count the 1500m free, which wasn’t swum in Rio. She can get away with that in distance races, but not in her shortest individual event, the 200m free.

Ledecky saw major changes since Rio, moving from the D.C. area, enrolling at Stanford and swimming under a new coach for the first time in four years. Then she swam a full NCAA season in the fall and winter.

“Maybe I haven’t been quite on point as much as I would’ve hoped to have been this week, but I’ve still been feeling good,” Ledecky said.

Pellegrini, whose 200m free world record from 2009 is the oldest female mark still standing, became the first swimmer to earn seven world medals in a single event. Pellegrini also earned Olympic silver in 2004 at age 16 and gold in 2008, but was fifth in 2012 and fourth in 2016.

She said after the race that it would be the final 200m of her career “at this level.”

“I honestly thought the one to win the race would be Katie,” Pellegrini said, according to The Associated Press, “and it wasn’t.”

Ledecky’s biggest rival in the 200m free, Swede Sarah Sjöström, chose not to enter the event in Budapest as she focuses on the 50m and 100m butterflies and freestyles.

Sjöström clocked 1:54.08 for silver in Rio (.35 behind Ledecky) and 1:54.31 leading off the 4x200m free relay at 2015 Worlds (.85 faster than Ledecky’s winning time in the 200m free final which Sjöström also skipped).

In Wednesday semifinals, Americans Caeleb Dressel and Nathan Adrian were the second- and third-fastest qualifiers into the 100m freestyle final Thursday. France’s Mehdy Metella qualified first by .01 over Dressel.

Chase Kalisz, the Olympic 400m individual medley silver medalist, qualified fastest into Thursday’s 200m IM final.

Olympic champion Mireia Belmonte of Spain and Hungarian Katinka Hosszu were among the qualifiers into Thursday’s 200m butterfly final.

Women’s 200m Freestyle Results
Gold: Federica Pellegrini (ITA) — 1;54.73

Silver: Katie Ledecky (USA) — 1:55.18
Silver: Emma McKeon (AUS) — 1:55.18
4. Veronika Popova (RUS) — 1:55.26
5. Siobhan Haughey (HKG) — 1:55.96
6. Leah Smith (USA) — 1:56.06
7. Katinka Hosszu (HUN) — 1:56.35
8. Charlotte Bonnet (FRA) — 1:56.62

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