Mikaela Shiffrin

Mikaela Shiffrin captures slalom title, inspired by girl with leukemia (video)

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Mikaela Shiffrin had not only the World Cup slalom season title on her mind Saturday, but also a girl with leukemia whom she met more than one year ago.

The Olympic slalom champion continued her dominance, winning her fourth World Cup slalom in seven races this season and clinching the season title in the event for the second straight year in Are, Sweden, on Saturday.

Shiffrin, 18, has now won four World Cup slaloms each of the last two seasons and is the first woman to win eight World Cup slaloms before age 19, according to Infostrada.

Shiffrin prevailed in blizzard-like conditions in Are in a two-run time of 1 minute, 50.66 seconds. Swedes went two-three-four, led by Maria Pietilae Holmner, who was .6 behind Shiffrin. Anna Swenn-Larsson was third, her first career World Cup podium.

Shiffrin’s win came at the same venue as her first career World Cup victory on Dec. 20, 2012. That day was fresh in Shiffrin’s mind after winning Saturday, especially a meeting with a young girl who wanted a picture with her. Here’s what Shiffrin said in 2012:

And on Saturday:

“I just keep thinking about [Emma],” Shiffrin said in a press conference. “She was a little lucky charm for me. … It put everything in perspective. Since then, I’ve carried that same motto that I can win, whatever, Olympics, it is all great, but it could be a lot worse, so I have to be grateful for everything that I have.”

Shiffrin’s ascent is clear from her World Cup standings results the last three years, the best indicator of skiing talent as they take into account finishes from throughout the season.

She’s gone from 17th to first to first in the slalom and 49th to 19th to sixth in the giant slalom. She won the slalom title by 33 points last year and leads this year’s standings by 130 points with just the World Cup Finals left next weekend.

Shiffrin also ranks sixth in the overall World Cup standings despite not racing any super-G, downhill or combined. She’s said she dreamed of winning five Olympic golds in 2018 and may start entering super-Gs later this year.

Her next goal, though, is to win a giant slalom race. She’s finished second and third in giant slaloms this season but has never won one.

“I know my GS skiing is fast, fast enough to win, but I really have to do my best skiing,” said Shiffrin, who was 15th and 24th in giant slaloms in Are on Thursday and Friday. “That seems to be slipping away from me a little bit.”

Shiffrin turns 19 on Thursday, then plans to race at the World Cup Finals next weekend followed by the U.S. Championships in Squaw Valley, Calif., beginning March 19 and then get her wisdom teeth removed.

The race for this year’s overall World Cup title is tight. German Maria Hoefl-Riesch took the lead back from Austrian Anna Fenninger with her seventh-place finish Saturday.

Hoefl-Riesch leads by 29 points with the four races left in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, next weekend.

American Resi Stiegler took 14th, her best finish this season, but did not qualify for the World Cup Finals.

Are Slalom
1. Mikaela Shiffrin (USA) 1:50.66
2. Maria Pietilae-Holmner (SWE) 1:51.26
3. Anna Swenn-Larsson (SWE) 1:52.16
4. Frida Hansdotter (SWE) 1:52.56
5. Nastasia Noens (FRA) 1:53.63
6. Sarka Strachova (CZE) 1:53.77
7. Maria Hoefl-Riesch (GER) 1:53.92
8. Kathrin Zettel (AUT) 1:53.94
9. Tina Maze (SLO) 1:54.19
10. Bernadette Schild (AUT) 1:54.32
14. Resi Stiegler (USA) 1:55.12

Ligety breaks Alpine record in first race since Olympics

Ragan Smith delivers in first U.S. championship title win

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Ragan Smith embraced the role of heavy favorite coming into the U.S. gymnastics championships.

Thrust into the spotlight for the first time in her career, the 17-year-old hardly appeared intimidated by the stage. Smith pulled away from the field to claim her first national title Sunday, posting a score of 115.250, more than three points clear of Jordan Chiles in second place and Riley McCusker in third.

Smith opened up a 1.3-point lead over McCusker in the opening round Friday but admitted afterward she wasn’t particularly impressed by her own performance. She was considerably sharper less than 48 hours later, her 57.850 total in the finals was the best in the 16-woman all-around field by nearly two points.

Smith is one of the few holdovers from the 2016 Olympic cycle, serving as an alternate for the “Final Five” team that won half of the available medals in Rio de Janeiro last fall. Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez are taking breaks or have moved on, leaving Smith as the standard bearer for new national team coordinator Valeri Liukin.

The program appears to be in solid hands. Smith ditched “The Addams Family” themed floor routine she used last year for something a little more mature. It’s not the only part of her gymnastics that has grown up. Smith finished first on floor and beam and tied for third on bars.

Smith will be in the mix for the all-around title at the world championships in Montreal, where she’ll have a chance to extend the U.S.’s dominance. An American woman has won the world or Olympic title each of the last six years. Barring injury, Smith should be right there.

Liukin said he wasn’t alarmed following an uneven performance by the field in preliminaries, calling it a positive step for a group lacking in experience. The gymnastics were markedly improved in the finals.

Chiles slipped by McCusker into second thanks to a fabulous save on beam in which she turned a near disaster into something decidedly artful.

Chiles was in the middle of “wolf turn” (basically spinning on one foot while in a crouch on a 4-inch wide piece of wood) when she nearly fell over. Instead she rose to her feet, kept rotating, and went right into the next part of her routine as if it was planned all along.

Chiles’ steadiness gives Liukin another option as he tries to put together the rest of the four-woman team that will join Smith in Montreal. McCusker, only recently recovered from foot and wrist injuries, tried to keep the heat on Smith but stepped out of bounds following the last tumbling pass on her floor routine. McCusker finished first on bars — her legs practically magnetized together as she went from bar to bar — to win the event with ease.

Ashton Locklear, like Smith an alternate last summer, wound up second on bars with a watered down routine as he makes her way back from her own injury issues and should have time to install upgrades before Montreal.

Whoever heads to Canada in October will go with the usual expectations for what has become the sport’s most dominant program.

MORE: Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles has competed in the six previous U.S. National Championships, winning the last four, but in Anaheim this year, she’s watching from the sidelines. Biles won four gold medals (team, all-around, vault and floor) and one bronze (on beam) last summer at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

This week she revealed she has returned to the gym to prepare for a yet to be determined event, in her return to competition.

When asked how she’s been doing in the gym by NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce, Biles responded with her signature smile accompanied by an endearingly bashful eye roll, “the beginning is…OK.”

MORE: Danell Leyva on why he’s retiring

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