Mikaela Shiffrin overcomes gate malfunction for bounce-back win

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Something strange happened during Mikaela Shiffrin‘s second and final run of a World Cup slalom on Sunday.

Shiffrin was skiing with a two tenths of a second lead when, all of a sudden, a red gate she cleared popped off in Maribor, Slovenia. It bounced off one of her ski poles and landed between her skis in the middle of the course.

Shiffrin cleared the next two gates with that broken red gate ricocheting at her boots. She eventually skied over that gate and left it behind her. Somehow, she only fell .09 behind at the next split time.

Shiffrin had fewer than 20 seconds to regain her speed and the lead. She did just that, and won by .19 of a second over Swiss Wendy Holdener.

“I saw a lot of gates were breaking when I was watching the other girls,” Shiffrin said. “I thought that, probably, it would happen for me as well. And it did, but with everybody else it seemed the gate went out of the way. For me, it just kept, like, getting stuck on my skis and my boots. So it was a bit distracting, but I don’t think it cost too much. I was focused.”

RUN 2 REPLAY | RACE RESULTS

With the win, Shiffrin notched an unprecedented feat.

Lindsey Vonn hasn’t done it. Neither has Ingemar StenmarkFranz Klammer or Alberto Tomba.

Shiffrin became the first skier to win five World Cup races in the same discipline, any discipline, in four straight years. She also won a handful of slaloms in 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Remarkably, she doesn’t turn 22 years old for another two months.

In all, Shiffrin has raced 30 slaloms across the Olympics, world championships and World Cups the last four seasons. She has won 22 of them, including 14 of her last 15.

She bounced back Sunday from a stunning DNF in the previous slalom last Tuesday, which broke a personal 15-race winning streak in the discipline.

Shiffrin now owns 27 career World Cup victories, one more than Tina Maze and equal with Maria Höfl-Riesch, the retired skiers who were Vonn’s biggest rivals in their heyday.

She also increased her World Cup overall standings lead to 305 points over Swiss Lara Gut through 18 of a scheduled 37 races. However, more speed races than technical races remain this season. If Shiffrin and Gut repeat their average finishes per discipline the rest of the season, Shiffrin will win the overall title by about 25 points.

“One of my big goals that I want to accomplish is the overall,” said Shiffrin, who could become the third U.S. woman to take the biggest annual prize in ski racing (Tamara McKinney, Vonn). “And I don’t know if it happens this year, but eventually that will be a big goal. … Right now, my focus is more world championships, but, eventually it will be more overall, probably.”

Shiffrin will be favored in the next World Cup race, a night slalom in Flachau, Austria, on Tuesday.

Gut is expected to begin her ascent next weekend, with a downhill and combined in Zauchensee, Austria. Vonn and fellow U.S. Olympic champion Julia Mancuso, both coming back from major injuries, could make their season debuts there.

VIDEO: Tina Maze makes bizarre farewell in final race

Ted Ligety out for rest of season

SOLDEN, AUSTRIA - OCTOBER 25:  (FRANCE OUT) Ted Ligety of the USA takes 1st place during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Men's Giant Slalom on October 25, 2015 in Soelden, Austria.  (Photo by Michel Cottin/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
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Ted Ligety will undergo back surgery and miss the rest of the Alpine skiing season, the latest in a series of health setbacks for the double Olympic champion, according to his social media.

Ligety, who won the combined at Torino 2006 and the giant slalom at Sochi 2014, said he had “stabbing (nerve) pain all the way down my leg” since the season-opening race in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 23.

“That has no (sic) allowed me to ski at the level that I expect of myself,” was posted on Ligety’s social media Monday. “I have seen many doctors and therapists, undergone an array of treatments and therapies to no effect. Unfortunately surgery (microdiscectomy) means my season over … I will be back strong and fast again.”

Ligety also ended last season prematurely, after tearing his right ACL on Jan. 27. He also suffered three herniated disks in his back and tore a hip labrum in 2015.

Of his last seven giant slaloms dating to last season, Ligety has failed to finish four times and placed fourth, fifth and 11th.

Ligety’s World Cup giant slalom podium drought is his longest since he notched the first top-three finish of his career in 2006. He racked up 40 podiums in a decade.

Ligety, 32, also owns the last three world giant slalom titles, plus five World Cup season titles in the discipline, in addition to his Sochi gold.

If healthy, Ligety would have tried next month to become the first male Alpine skier to take gold at four straight world championships.

With Ligety’s absence, the U.S. will have zero past men’s Olympic or world gold medalists at a world championships for the first time since 2001.

Worlds are in St. Moritz, Switzerland, from Feb. 6-19.

MORE: Franz Klammer stars in commercial with Alpine skiing champions

Ashley Wagner, Nathan Chen make for contrasting favorites at U.S. Championships

Ashley Wagner, Nathan Chen
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Ashley Wagner and Nathan Chen trained on the same ice for the last three years. They enter this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City as favorites, but took different routes to arrive there.

Wagner, 25, seeks her fourth national title, following the worst Grand Prix result of her 10-year career.

Still, Wagner is the 2016 World Championships silver medalist, which carries the most weight of all with the PyeongChang Olympics coming in 13 months.

Wagner, the most accomplished U.S. women’s singles skater in a decade, can become the oldest U.S. women’s singles champion in 90 years.

“Mentally, I’m feeling very confident,” Wagner said last week. “At this point in my career it is very easy for me to get mentally worn out and worn down, but I usually feel strongest when my training is backing me up and when I know that I am physically fit.”

Chen, 17, is an even bigger favorite in the men’s field. The Salt Lake City native is already one of the most accomplished young skaters in U.S. history, taking two novice and two junior national titles.

In this his first senior international season, Chen had the best fall series of a U.S. man since Evan Lysacek won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Chen’s autumn culminated with a silver medal at December’s Grand Prix Final, beating the reigning Olympic and world champions in the free skate.

This week, Chen can become the youngest U.S. men’s singles champion in 51 years. He would do it one year after taking bronze and suffering a hip injury later that day that required season-ending surgery.

“I never thought that I would get there that fast,” Chen said.

MORE: U.S. Figure Skating Championships broadcast schedule

Chen was already working with Armenian coach Rafael Arutyunyan in Los Angeles when Wagner joined the training group in the middle of 2013.

Chen was barely 14 years old at the time, but Wagner, by then already a two-time U.S. champion, had learned about him back in 2010.

Wagner saw Chen win the U.S. Championships novice division at age 10, beating skaters six and seven years older than him, including her younger brother, Austin.

“And my brother retired after that year because of Nathan Chen,” Wagner said with a hint of humor.

Under Arutyunyan, a noted jumping technician, Wagner developed into the top consistent challenger to the dominant Russians.

She endured failure — finishing fourth at the 2014 U.S. Championships and last-place programs at the Grand Prix Final. She experienced success — national and international feats not done by an American since Michelle Kwan.

Most of the U.S. skaters whom Wagner came up with have retired. Her closest recent domestic rivals — Olympic teammates Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds — struggled with poor performances and injury, respectively, in the last year.

If Wagner prevails as she should in Kansas City, the next step is returning to the podium at the world championships in two months in Helsinki, where three Russians, three Japanese and a Canadian will try to keep her off of it. A second straight world medal would make Wagner the best U.S. hope for an Olympic women’s singles medal since 2006.

“The biggest thing about her is her mental toughness,” Chen said of Wagner, “especially when she goes to competitions and zones in on what she wants to do and comes out with the result she wants.”

MORE: Gracie Gold makes desperate move after rock bottom

Mental toughness is something Chen hopes to develop with experience. He already owns the physical tools, most notably an arsenal of quadruple jumps.

Chen, whose adorable 2010 U.S. Championships exhibition at age 10 aired on NBC, is now electrifying. He attempts six quads combined in two programs.

At his last event, the Grand Prix Final in December, Chen recorded the highest free skate score, bettering Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, who both were off their game. He finished second overall behind Hanyu, becoming the second-youngest men’s medalist in the event’s 22-year history.

NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski, who took 1998 Olympic gold at age 15, has, like Wagner, known about Chen since 2010. Lipinski was in Spokane, Wash., for those U.S. Championships seven years ago.

“I remember thinking, oh boy, this kid is so talented, but not really thinking much of it because he was itty-bitty,” Lipinski said of Chen, who has grown a foot since 2010, to 5 feet, 5 inches. “Over time and with growth spurts, everything can change. But that’s why he’s so special. Every year, he improves. You talk about this quad revolution. He’s leading it.”

Chen responded to critics of his artistic skills this season by spending weeks away from Arutyunyan, which the coach supported.

“There is a brain of an adult in this kid’s head,” Arutyunyan said.

Chen went from Los Angeles to work in Michigan under Marina Zoueva, a Russian known for coaching the last two Olympic champion ice dance teams.

NBC Olympic analysts Johnny Weir and Lipinski saw an upgrade in Chen’s artistic components in his fall competitions. If he can challenge the top international skaters artistically, he can beat them with his jumping strength.

“The way that men’s figure skating is progressing, it’s about the quad game and how many you can do,” Wagner said. “It’s starting to look a little bit like ping-pong on the ice. … Going into the next couple of years, the ones that are going to stand out are the ones that do quads and are able to have a full, well-rounded program.”

In Sochi, the U.S. earned no singles figure skating medals for the first time since 1936.

The U.S. hasn’t earned men’s and women’s figure skating medals in the same Olympics since 2002, but it’s certainly looking possible with 13 months until PyeongChang.

“Of course, my goal would be to win the Olympics,” Chen said. “I feel like that’s everyone goal. It’s still a goal for me, but we’ll see how realistic it becomes over the next season.”

MORE: Jason Brown again slowed by injury going into U.S. Championships