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If experience wins in bobsled, U.S. primed for 2018 glory

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source: AP
From left: Elana Meyers, Lauryn Williams, Aja Evans and Jamie Greubel. (Credit: AP)

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The difference between women’s bobsled gold and silver was one tenth of a second and four years of experience.

Canadian Kaillie Humphries came back to defend her Olympic  title, erasing a deficit of .23 after the first two runs and beating American Elana Meyers by .1 after four runs at Sanki Sliding Center on Wednesday night.

Meyers, with push athlete Lauryn Williams, averaged nearly .05 faster in start times per run than Humphries and Heather Moyse, a critical portion of the race that can dictate speed the rest of the way down the track. The U.S. also has fantastic technology, new BMW sleds that awed Humphries.

That left one area for Humphries to really make up ground on Meyers – driving.

They say it can take eight years for drivers to hit their peaks. Humphries has been doing just that, ever since being left off the 2006 Olympic Team when she was a push athlete.

Meyers has been driving for four years, ever since winning bronze at the 2010 Olympics as a push athlete.

“It makes a big difference, in all fairness,” Humphries said.

VIDEO: Watch Canada defend its Olympic gold

Humphries put together four consistent runs over two days, keeping her golden form at major championships, the only events that switch from the two- to four-run format. She changed her sled’s runners from Tuesday to Wednesday, but wasn’t fazed in her driving approach, despite the deficit.

She had reason to be calm.

Humphries trained with Meyers last summer and is so close to the American that she will attend Meyers’ wedding in April. That partnership also helped Meyers, the 2013 world silver medalist, close the gap on 2013 world champion Humphries during eight races that comprise the World Cup season. Humphries barely won her third straight season title, 1,629-1,628 over Meyers.

Humphries went into Sochi knowing she had a consistency edge over Meyers. That showed Wednesday.

Meyers matched her start record in the third of four runs, but after getting into the sled she struggled, hitting a wall and skidding. The .23 lead was down to .11. The Canadians were confident.

“After the third run I said to Kaillie, ‘You know what, the gap is closing,’” Moyse said.

In the fourth and final run, the Humphries threw down the fastest time of the field. Then came Meyers, going last. She skidded again. Humphries watched on a screen at the bottom of the track, recognizing Meyers’ mistakes.

“That’s pressure,” Humphries said. “Driving experience plays a factor into that.”

It also was the edge.

Humphries and Moyse won their second straight Olympic gold. They were the only driver-push athlete combo in the 19-sled field that also competed together at the 2010 Olympics.

Meyers was the only member of the 2014 U.S. Olympic Women’s Bobsled Team with previous Winter Olympic experience, and it was under completely different circumstances as a push athlete.

VIDEO: Meyers, Williams sled to silver

“I have a lot to learn,” said Meyers, who said she was delighted with silver, becoming the first two-time U.S. Olympic women’s bobsled medalist. “Driving is all about consistency. That’s what it takes to win Olympic gold. It takes four consistent runs. I didn’t have ‘em.”

The next four years will be about gathering consistency.

Meyers, 29, plans on sledding through to the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, as does Humphries, 28.

Who else will be in Meyers’ sled is a big question.

Three-time track Olympian Lauryn Williams became the fifth person to win Winter and Summer Olympic medals in different disciplines, pushing for Meyers this week. She is 30, retired from sprinting and wouldn’t commit to anything past eating a pizza Wednesday night.

USA-2 driver Jamie Greubel, who won bronze Wednesday, said she will drive next season and then “see how it goes.”

Greubel’s push athlete, Aja Evans, is going back to track and field as a heptathlete. She’s thinking about the Rio Olympics.

Then there’s Lolo Jones, who finished 11th with the No. 3 U.S. driver, Jazmine Fenlator.

“I’ll take seven days off and begin preparing for track,” she said. “It’s going to be brutal. I need to lose 15 pounds.”

VIDEO: Lolo stays positive after 11th place finish

Fenlator will keep driving. She wants Jones to return.

“I told her she can take a break for Rio,” Fenlator said, “but I’m going to reel her back in.”

Jones is 31 and re-entering track as an underdog. She finished fifth in the 100m hurdles at last year’s U.S. Championships; the top 3 finishers were at least five years younger than her.

In bobsled, there’s sure to be changeover next season, but Meyers will be the steady leader. She will continue to chase Humphries, and she may very well catch and pass her very soon.

“She’s got the physical ability to do it,” said Helen Upperton, a two-time Canadian Olympic bobsledder now working for CBC. “Kaillie’s a great driver, but if you’re getting outstarted, and as people acquire more runs, they’re going to become better pilots. She’s already giving Kaillie a run for the money.”

Tony Azevedo retires after 5 Olympics in water polo

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 14:  Tony Azevedo of the USA in action during the USA vs Italy Waterpolo group match at Julio de Lamare Aquatics Centre on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
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Tony Azevedo is ending one of the greatest water polo careers in U.S. history, retiring after a record five Olympics at age 35.

Azevedo, the first American to play in five Olympic water polo tournaments, said it was a tough decision but a necessary one to spend time with his family — wife Sara and two kids, according to the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram.

“The traveling and everything for them would be too much,” said Azevedo, who has a 3-year-old boy and a girl born after the Rio Olympics. “It’s time.”

Azevedo was a teenage prodigy dubbed the “Kobe Bryant of water polo.” A ball boy at the 1996 Olympics, Azevedo made a list of about 13 goals as a “slow, fat, chubby kid” who wanted to start on his high school team.

He reached all of those goals except for one — a gold medal. Azevedo made his Olympic debut out of high school in 2000 and then helped lead the U.S. to silver at Beijing 2008, his lone Olympic or world championships medal in 13 combined appearances. He led the U.S. in goals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.

“If anyone asks, am I going to miss the swimming? No. Am I going to miss the games? No. Are you going to miss the Olympics? No,” Azevedo said. “I’m going to miss those days of grinding with your teammates.”

Azevedo was one of the top U.S. stories of the Rio Olympics, since he was born in the Brazilian city and lived there for 23 days before moving to Southern California. Azevedo, whose father was a Brazilian national team member, played for a Sao Paulo club team for much of the past Olympic cycle.

The U.S. went 2-3 in Rio, failing to advance out of group play.

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MORE: PyeongChang 2018 daily schedule highlights

Five takeaways from World Alpine Skiing Championships

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Five thoughts after an unpredictable world alpine skiing championships, looking ahead to the Olympics … 

1. Expect Mikaela Shiffrin to be busier in PyeongChang

Shiffrin chose not to enter the super-G or super combined in the first week at worlds, in order to maximize her medal potential in the giant slalom and slalom in the final weekend. It paid off with silver and gold medals.

It seems unlikely that Shiffrin adopts the same, two-race slate in PyeongChang. The 2018 Olympic schedule has the giant slalom and slalom in the first week, followed by the speed events of super-G, downhill and super combined.

Consider also Shiffrin’s mindset going into St. Moritz.

“Right now, I’m going with [only giant slalom and slalom] because I just don’t think that I have quite enough experience in speed [events] to be able to count on winning a medal in those events yet,” she said. “But by the time we go to South Korea next year, maybe I could. I might be in a position where I can at least be in contention for medals in giant slalom, slalom, combined, super-G and maybe even downhill, only because nobody’s ever skied on that track before.”

The women get their first look at the 2018 Olympic venue with World Cup races in two weeks, a downhill and super-G. Shiffrin said before worlds that she planned to travel to South Korea for training but to leave before the races start. She wanted to prioritize the following week’s World Cup giant slalom and slalom in Squaw Valley, Calif.

What’s for sure is we can learn plenty about Shiffrin’s Olympic potential in speed events this weekend. She’s set to race at the World Cup stop in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, which is made up of two combineds and a super-G.

If Shiffrin enters all three events, it will bring her career World Cup start total in downhill, super-G and combined up to 10 races. Her best finish in her first seven starts was fourth in a super-G last month.

“I have a lot of goals there,” Shiffrin said of speed events after bagging her third straight slalom world title Saturday. “Hopefully, some day, I’d like to win in super-G and downhill, but I think it’ll take some time before I can do that consistently. It’s definitely a long road from here. I still feel like I just started.”

2. Lindsey Vonn must heal

Vonn made it clear at worlds that she wasn’t 100 percent recovered from breaking her right upper arm in a Nov. 10 training crash. Her right hand movement was so limited that she couldn’t put her hair in a ponytail, let alone comfortably grip a ski pole at 75 miles per hour.

After skiing out of the opening super-G, troubled by that hand, she duct-taped her glove to her ski pole, placed fifth in the super combined and third in the downhill. She said the bronze medal felt like gold given her latest injury comeback.

Vonn became the oldest woman to earn a world championships medal. In PyeongChang, she can become the oldest woman to earn an Olympic Alpine medal.

Vonn’s biggest hurdle is her own health. A smooth finish to the season, regardless of wins, and a normal offseason is key.

“I want to be in a position at the Olympics where I’m at my top form not just struggling to kind of make it back into the mix,” Vonn said, according to The Associated Press. “It’s a different ballgame when I’m prepared.”

3. U.S. lacks young stars

Worlds went about to form for the entire U.S. team. Shiffrin and Vonn were the only medalists. No man placed in the top 10 for the first time since 1997.

Injuries and, especially, aging are the concerns.

Four-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso, out since November 2015 hip surgery, was on the team but didn’t enter any events. The top U.S. men on the World Cup in recent seasons, Ted Ligety and Steven Nyman, went out with season-ending injuries in January. Bode Miller, who has trained but not raced this season, was in the NBC Sports commentary booth.

All of them are 32 years and older. Maybe some summon one last Olympic medal surge next year, but what about after that?

Shiffrin is the only American younger than age 28 who owns a World Cup victory. U.S. men earned Youth Olympic and junior worlds gold medals last year, but they look destined for 2022.

4. Marcel Hirscher approaches Austrian legends

Hirscher was the best skier in St. Moritz, despite reportedly spending days in bed before his first race. He earned two golds and missed a third by .01 in the super combined.

Only Tony Sailer owns more individual world titles among Austrian men. Hirscher is en route to his sixth straight World Cup overall title this season, which no man from any country has accomplished.

He’s at 43 World Cup wins, 11 shy of the Austrian men’s mark held by Hermann Maier. At 27 years old, Hirscher ought to eclipse it.

But Hirscher’s résumé has a gaping hole — no Olympic gold medal. He was upset in the Sochi Olympic slalom by countryman Mario Matt. And there’s no certainty Hirscher will be a favorite in PyeongChang.

For years, he was the world’s second-best giant slalom skier behind the now-injured Ligety, who could reclaim the throne next season, though that is a tall order.

In slalom, young Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen has been neck and neck with Hirscher but had a poor worlds.

The super combined is the most unpredictable event, but even there Frenchman Alexis Pinturault has won six of the 11 World Cup races since 2013.

5. Surprises in St. Moritz

Most races provided surprise medalists.

In all five men’s events, either the gold or silver medalist had not won a World Cup race in at least two years (or, in three cases, never made a World Cup podium). Women’s medalists in downhill, super-G, giant slalom and the super combined had never won a World Cup race.

New names were going to emerge regardless, considering the list of recent stars not racing (retired Tina Maze, Ligety, Miller, Aksel Lund Svindal) and those who did compete but were slowed or forced out by injury (Vonn, Anna Veith, Gut).

More surprises could be in store in PyeongChang given, as Shiffrin said, it’s a new track for everybody.

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