Ted Ligety wins World Cup season opener

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SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — American standout Ted Ligety earned his 25th career World Cup win Sunday, overcoming a tough course to take the season-opening giant slalom.

Trying to regain dominance in his strongest discipline, the Olympic and world GS champion held on to his first-run lead to beat Thomas Fanara of France by 0.15 and Marcel Hirscher of Austria by 0.17. The rest of the field finished at least 1.90 seconds off the lead.

“It was tough. I am a little bit surprised I made it to the finish line as it’s a battlefield out there,” Ligety said. “So many ruts in there and tough to see so I just tried to hammer and look for speed.”

The victory marked Ligety’s 50th podium finish in a World Cup race. He became the third American male skier to reach the feat after Bode Miller (79), who is skipping this season, and Phil Mahre (69).

It was Ligety’s fourth win on the Rettenbach glacier. The Austrian resort, which features an icy course with a steep pitch, is the traditional venue for the first race of the Alpine skiing season.

“The hill has been treating me well but Soelden is not a feel-good hill. I didn’t feel great,” Ligety said between runs. He finished in a two-run combined time of 2 minutes, 23.88 seconds.

The American has dominated the discipline since 2012 but was beaten for the GS title by Hirscher last year. The Austrian went on to win his fourth overall title.

Hirscher won here last year but settled for finishing third this time.

“It went better than I expected,” he said. “I am very relieved that I am there among the best. You see the other guys getting stronger so I have to keep up with their progress.”

Ligety made no secret that regaining the GS season title from Hirscher is his main priority.

“My big goal for the season is trying to get the giant slalom title back,” said Ligety, who didn’t rate high his chances to take the overall championship, even after the perfect start to the new season.

“A bunch of little things have to come together to make that possible,” the American said. “But I am definitely an outsider contender.”

A good offseason preparation laid the base for Ligety’s strong performance. Training camps in Chile and New Zealand allowed him to train much more on snow than before the previous season, which was disappointing apart from defending his world GS title.

“I am the type of skier that needs a lot of volume,” he said. “I ski a lot more than most skiers do. Because I do all the events but also because for me to get my confidence, I need more miles than most guys.”

Norwegians Aksel Lund Svindal and Kjetil Jansrud, expected to be Hirscher’s closest competitors for the overall championship, finished more than four seconds off the lead in 24th and 25th respectively.

“I wish I could be little bit faster. I am not happy but I can understand it,” Jansrud said, referring to the tough hill.

Alexis Pinturault, who has finished in the top 10 of the overall standings for four straight years while placing third in the past two seasons, came 2.01 behind in fifth.

The next men’s World Cup race is a slalom in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 15.

MORE ALPINE SKIING: Men’s season preview

Tonga flag bearer from Rio says he qualified for Winter Olympics

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Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless, oiled-up Tongan flag bearer from the Rio Games, said he qualified for the PyeongChang Olympics in cross-country skiing on Saturday.

“This was my last race possible, and we did it,” Taufatofua said in an interview with Olympic Channel, which also reported that he qualified. “This is a miracle.”

Taufatofua said he qualified at the final weekend of the Olympic qualifying period in Iceland, which is more than 9,000 miles from his home archipelago.

The last two events before qualification ends were Saturday’s freestyle race and a classic race scheduled for Sunday. Saturday’s results have not been posted yet.

Taufatofua completed a journey this season that included races in Colombia, Turkey, Poland and Armenia.

Taufatofua said he had seven chances to qualify for PyeongChang before Saturday and failed in all of them, finishing last each time (The official results show Taufatofua beating skiers from Malaysia and Mexico in some of these races.).

Taufatofua scrambled to make it to Iceland from Croatia this week. He said his group drove three days through a blizzard, an avalanche closing off the road at one point.

“People don’t see the hard work that goes behind,” he said. “They just see the shiny guy that walks with the flag.”

Taufatofua lost his opening Olympic taekwondo match by mercy rule in Rio, two weeks after his viral appearance in the Opening Ceremony.

He announced in December 2016 that he was switching to cross-country skiing in a bid for PyeongChang.

Cross-country, while a physically taxing pursuit, is one of the easier Winter Olympic sports to gain qualification for athletes from nations without much Winter Games history.

“I decided to find the hardest sport possible because I needed a new challenge,” Taufatofua said. “The goal was to do it one year, and we did it.”

Taufatofua debuted at the 2017 World Championships and was 153rd of 156 finishers in the 1.6km sprint freestyle.

It took Taufatofua 5 minutes, 44.72 seconds to complete the course in Lahti, Finland, which was about 10,000 miles from Tonga. The top qualifier clocked 3:11.72.

How will he dress at the PyeongChang Opening Ceremony, where outdoor temperatures are likely to be below freezing?

“One step at a time,” Taufatofua said. “Right now, I just want to go and party. I destroyed myself just to get here.”

In 2014, Bruno Banani became the first Tongan to compete at a Winter Olympics, placing 32nd in men’s luge. He was later the subject of a documentary.

Banani gained fame starting in early 2012, when the story of his name was widely publicized. Banani’s real name is Fuahea Semi, but he changed it to the name of his German clothing sponsor as a marketing ploy.

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VIDEO: Shaun White scores perfect 100 to qualify for Olympics

I raced through 5 countries in the last 24hrs to try and get to my race in Croatia. I sat in a taxi for 6 hrs driving through Armenia into Georgia in the middle of the night. I sat on the front seat of the @turkishairlines plane, sprinted through the airport and snuck through the business class fast transit lane and somehow managed to arrive at the gate 15 min before departure for my flight to Croatia. Once there I found that @turkishairlines had shut the gate early even after their delayed initial flight from Georgia, leaving me stranded. After remembering a scene from a James Bond movie, I pressed all the buttons on the aerobridge door to see if I could somehow open it and sprint down to the connecting flight, unfortunately that didn’t work, and luckily I didn’t get arrested. So here I am sitting at Istanbul airport missing the race that could have possibly gotten me to the Olympics. It was always going to be a long shot but I had to give it a shot and I did. Soo many times in life we will get disappointed. When this happens I have two options. I can sit on that chair crying about what could have been and how unfair life is…. or I can go and find some good quality chocolate, pull out my notepad and start planning “what’s next”— I always did like chocolate…

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Summer Britcher upsets Olympic luge favorites at World Cup

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American luger Summer Britcher beat the last two Olympic champions from powerhouse Germany to win a World Cup in Lillehammer, Norway, on Saturday.

It’s the most impressive victory for a U.S. luger since Erin Hamlin‘s world title in 2009.

Britcher, a 23-year-old qualified for PyeongChang, became the first U.S. woman to win a non-sprint World Cup outside North America since Kate Hansen in 2014.

But Hansen, whose victory was the first by a U.S. woman at any World Cup since 1997, didn’t have to go through the top Germans.

Britcher edged 2014 Olympic champion Natalie Geisenberger by .033 on Saturday. Fellow Germans Julia Taubitz and 2010 Olympic champion Tatjana Huefner were third and fourth.

Full results are here.

Britcher’s previous three World Cup wins, all in the 2015-16 season, were all on North American tracks.

All three women on the U.S. Olympic luge team — Britcher, Sochi bronze medalist Hamlin and Emily Sweeney — have won at least one World Cup since the start of the 2016-17 season.

That breeds hope that the U.S. can claim its second Olympic singles luge medal in PyeongChang to follow up Hamlin’s breakthrough in 2014.

Germans won 12 straight full World Cup races on European tracks coming into Saturday.

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VIDEO: Shaun White scores perfect 100 to qualify for Olympics