Alpine skiing women’s World Cup season preview

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If the previous Alpine skiing season taught us anything, it’s that nobody is safe.

The three most decorated skiers all suffered knee injuries in crashes, missing part or all of the campaign.

Oct. 21: Austrian Anna Veith, the 2014 and 2015 World Cup overall champion, damages her right knee in a training crash, three days before the first race of the year. Veith misses the entire season.

Dec. 12: Mikaela Shiffrin, Olympic slalom champion, suffers right knee injuries in a light warm-up crash before a giant slalom in Sweden. Shiffrin misses two months of races, returning for the final month of the season.

Feb. 27: Lindsey Vonn, winner of 76 World Cup races, suffers three left knee fractures in a super-G crash in Andorra. Vonn’s season ends three weeks premature.

Swiss Lara Gut, once a teenage phenom who missed the 2010 Olympics due to preseason hip surgery, stayed healthy and captured her first World Cup overall title last March.

The versatile Gut won six races across four disciplines, but she also had the benefit of the absences of Veith, Shiffrin, Vonn and the other two top skiers from the year before — Slovenian Tina Maze and retired Austrian Nicole Hosp.

Of the aforementioned skiers, only Shiffrin will join Gut in the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Saturday (NBC Sports app, 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. ET; Universal HD, 3 p.m. ET).

ALPINE SKIING: Men’s World Cup preview

Shiffrin eyes her first outright World Cup giant slalom victory, two years after sharing a Soelden win with Veith. Any Soelden podium place would boost Shiffrin’s bid to become an overall title contender by becoming more proficient in giant slalom and adding more speed races. Shiffrin is already on an 11-race slalom win streak.

Maze, 33 and a two-time 2014 Olympic gold medalist, plans to race at one World Cup stop this season, at home in Maribor, Slovenia, from Jan. 7-8, and then retire, according to European media.

Vonn and Veith are skipping Soelden for different reasons.

Vonn passed on Saturday’s giant slalom because she’s not going for the World Cup overall title this season, but rather for individual race victories. Vonn, who does not excel in giant slalom, is 10 wins shy of the World Cup career record of 86 held by Swedish legend Ingemar Stenmark. She is expected to focus on downhills and super-Gs.

Veith is the 2015 World champion in the giant slalom but simply isn’t race ready coming back from her injuries. She will also miss the next giant slalom on Nov. 26 in Killington, Vt., pushing her return to December, according to Austrian media.

Vonn hasn’t publicly committed to Killington and could, like Veith, wait for the first downhill and super-G races in December.

Everybody is looking ahead to the world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in February. That event may be a bellwether for the 2018 Olympics, especially if Veith and Vonn are back up to speed to join Gut and Shiffrin.

Four years ago at worlds, Vonn crashed and then rushed her comeback, crashed again and ended up missing the 2014 Olympics. Maze and Shiffrin each took gold medals at the 2013 Worlds and then did so again at the Sochi Winter Games.

But if last season taught us anything, the Alpine skiing landscape can change quickly.

MORE: Vonn details weight struggles in new book

Chinese lead, star pairs struggle in world championships short program

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China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong recorded the highest pairs short program score in the world since the 2014 Olympics, topping the world championships field in Helsinki on Wednesday.

Two-time defending world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada and Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov are well behind in seventh and 13th place, respectively.

Sui and Han, in just their second event this season, tallied a personal-best 81.23 points.

They lead by 1.39 over Germans Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot going into the free skate Thursday (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov are in third.

The Chinese will go for their first world title after giving up a short-program lead last year and taking silver for a second straight time.

Full worlds short program results are here.

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Sui and Han missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at the Four Continents Championships in February and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

Duhamel and Radford, looking to become the first pair to three-peat in 40 years, came in slowed by Radford’s hip injury suffered in the last week. Radford was off-balance on his triple toe loop landing Wednesday. Duhamel’s hand touched the ice on her throw triple Lutz landing.

They scored 72.67 points, which is 8.56 behind Sui and Han.

Stolbova and Klimov both suffered falls in their short program and scored 65.59, qualifying for the 16-pair free skate by four points. The Russian champions missed the autumn season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury.

The top U.S. pair was Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim, who posted a personal-best 72.17 points for eighth place. The husband-and-wife pair are competing for the second time this season after Scimeca Knierim’s serious abdominal injury.

U.S. champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier suffered two falls and placed 20th, matching the worst U.S. pairs finish in worlds history. They did not qualify for the 16-pair free skate.

Therefore, the Knierims must finish 10th or better after the free skate to ensure the U.S. earns two pairs places at the 2018 Olympics.

Pairs is the U.S.’ weakest discipline. The last U.S. medal in pairs at worlds came in 2002. The last Olympic medal was in 1988.

North Korean pair Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik placed 14th in the short program, the highest of any pair expected to compete for one of four final Olympic quota spots in September.

North Korea sent no athletes to the Sochi Olympics, and it’s not a guarantee it will qualify any athletes for PyeongChang, or if it will send athletes to South Korea in February. But Ryom and Kim’s personal best by nearly 11 points on Wednesday was very encouraging.

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MORE: U.S. pairs skater back from life-threatening condition

Pairs Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 81.23
2. Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot (GER) — 79.84
3. Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 79.37
8. Alexa Scimeca Knierim/Christopher Knierim (USA) — 72.17
20. Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier (USA) — 56.23

Missy Franklin out due to shoulder surgeries

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Missy Franklin is sidelined from swimming competition for an undisclosed period of time to recover from surgeries on both of her shoulders due to bursitis, according to her social media.

“This is what’s best for me to come stronger than ever,” was posted on Franklin’s Instagram. “I’m so far from being done with this sport.”

The five-time Olympic champion was diagnosed in early January following an MRI, underwent surgeries that month and has returned to limited training.

Franklin, who has not raced since the Rio Olympics, will not compete in the next USA Swimming Pro Series meet in Mesa, Ariz., in two weeks.

Her return date is not set.

The U.S. Championships are in June in Indianapolis and serve as a qualifying meet for the world championships in Budapest in July.

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