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Julia Mancuso returns after 6 months on crutches

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ALTENMARKT-ZAUCHENSEE, Austria (AP) — Returning to World Cup skiing after 22 months, Julia Mancuso has found a new balance in her life.

And it’s not just the surgically repaired right hip the 2006 Olympic champion is referring to.

“The year off just helped me to reset,” Mancuso told The Associated Press ahead of Saturday’s downhill, where she planned to race for the first time since March 2015 (5:15 a.m. ET, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

“It was nice to have a less stressful year,” the American said. “Having a year off when you have your hip to heal, gives the rest of your body a really good chance. As far as the rest of my body, I feel super-healed. I feel like I am in a better position and I am a lot more balanced.”

Getting married, to Dylan Fish, also helped the 32-year-old Mancuso to resettle in her season away from the slopes.

“You definitely check out,” said Mancuso, who is accompanied by Fish in Austria. “I live part-time in Hawaii, part-time in Fiji, where my husband lives. It was nice because I never got to do these things like Christmas at home.”

Born with hip dysplasia, Mancuso has long fought against the pain. It didn’t prevent her from winning seven World Cup races and becoming the most decorated American female skier at major competitions, with four Olympic and five world championship medals.

But as therapy and medication were no longer sufficient, surgery became unavoidable and forced Mancuso to sit out the 2015-16 season.

Her hip turned out to be far more damaged than it initially seemed. It made recovery even harder. Instead of the planned two months, Mancuso had to go on crutches for half a year.

After a lot of powder skiing in the fall, she felt she had to get back to racing again.

“It’s just kind of what fuels me, what gets me excited,” Mancuso said. “I had to get out of being home. Because if I was home, I would definitely be stuck in a pattern of not having the energy to go on the road and start competing.”

Mancuso picked the first speed races of the new year to rejoin the U.S. women’s speed team, knowing that the hill in Zauchensee suits her.

At 17, she got her first career top-10 result in the Austrian resort as she placed fifth in the downhill of the 2002 World Cup finals, shortly after winning the junior world title. And she won a combined event on the slope 10 years ago, sharing the podium with another American standout, Lindsey Vonn.

Mancuso’s return to the team was greeted by Vonn, who herself was eyeing a comeback to racing after an 11-month layoff to nurse an injured knee and broken arm.

“In the last year, without her, you definitely felt a little bit of a hole on the team. So it’s nice to have her back,” Vonn said. “I am really pulling for her and I want her to have success.”

Mancuso said her rehab and comeback were hardly comparable to Vonn’s.

“She is definitely coming back from a very dramatic injury. She is doing really well and skiing well, besides her arm,” said Mancuso, adding she felt “like I am pretty far off.”

“I am still missing a lot of strength. I am feeling pretty good on my skis in the morning when I get up and take my first runs. My hip starts to get a little more fatigued during the day.”

Mancuso hoped to be back at full strength for summer training in order to find the limits of her skiing again next season.

“Even though I have everything else, it is hard with the injury because I don’t want that to be what keeps me from doing what I love,” Mancuso said. “I just feel like I want to get back to my potential before I can decide that I want to retire from ski racing.”

For Mancuso, the prospect of having another shot at Olympic medals at the 2018 PyeongChang Games in South Korea pushed aside any thoughts about calling it a career.

“When I set the goal of going to the next Olympics and wanting to be a medal contender,” Mancuso said, “there is not an option to do anything else.”

MORE: Lindsey Vonn: I can still win World Cup titles

Decker scores twice, U.S. women’s hockey team beats Canada 5-2

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QUEBEC CITY (AP) — Brianna Decker scored twice to help the U.S. women’s hockey team open its pre-Olympic exhibition schedule with a 5-2 victory over Canada on Sunday.

Hilary Knight, Annie Pankowski and Alex Carpenter also scored for the Americans.

Meghan Agosta and Jillian Saulnier scored for Canada.

The teams will meet again Wednesday night in Boston. Canada has won four straight Olympic titles, and the U.S. has claimed seven of the last eight world championships.

World downhill champion Ilka Stuhec tears ACL

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Lindsey Vonn’s top rival for downhill gold is in danger of missing the upcoming Olympics.

Ilka Stuhec, a world champion Alpine skier from Slovenia, suffered a torn ACL after a practice crash in Austria this weekend.

Stuhec had become a strong medal favorite for PyeongChang after winning FIS World Cup titles in downhill and Alpine combined last season. She also won a gold medal in downhill at the 2017 World Championships, where Vonn placed third.

According to a post on the FIS website, surgery is set for this Wednesday, with more information to come after that. But preliminary reports suggest that she is likely to miss the Olympics.

“For now it looks like Ilka Stuhec will have to miss a large part or maybe the whole World Cup season, including the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea,” a spokesperson for Struhec told Reuters.

In a tweet, Struhec acknowledged that she would be sidelined “for a few months.”

The Olympics start in less than four months.