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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

World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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MORE: Ashley Wagner knows pressure’s on her at worlds

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

Ashley Caldwell will win or lose Olympic aerials gold with triples

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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — As a teenager, Ashley Caldwell never had problems hanging with the boys when it came to doing the biggest flips off the aerials ramp. Now in her 20s, she sees no reason for that to change.

Caldwell will make or miss her third U.S. Olympic team, then potentially win or lose the gold medal in South Korea, by doing triple flips off the kicker while most of the women are doing doubles. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition that sets the bar high, and sends a certain message, regardless of whether she finishes first or last.

“It’s not just about trying to be there by myself,” Caldwell says. “It’s about maybe inspiring some younger girls to say, `I should be able to push to whatever I’m capable of doing, not necessarily what people say my gender is capable of doing.”‘

Caldwell never shirked from joining the teenage boys when they started moving to the bigger kickers and adding an extra flip to the doubles they did as kids.

Triples are the price of admission for the men, and while not unheard of among the women, the list of athletes who will try them is short: Jacqui Cooper, Alla Tsuper and Xu Mengtao are among the few who have tried them over the years. They’re also among the best to ever fly off a ramp.

At the Sochi Olympics, Lydia Lassila of Australia became the first woman to land a quadruple-twisting triple flip on snow in training. The next night, she brought it to the medals round, and though she touched her hand to the ground on the landing, she won a bronze medal anyway and stole the headlines.

“That’s who I’m inspired by,” Caldwell said that night. “She’s trying to push the sport so that girls are jumping like the boys, and she’s doing it, and it’s really impressive.”

At freestyle world championships earlier this month, Caldwell sent her message when she became the first woman to cleanly land that same triple-flipping, quadruple-twisting jump in competition (video here).

“It was the first time I had every coach come up to me and shake my hand before the score even came up,” said Todd Ossian, who works with Caldwell as head coach of the U.S. aerials team.

And yet, Caldwell was oh-so-close to not being able to even try that winning jump.

Aerials competitions go through a series of qualifying and elimination rounds that include only one jump each. Consistency is rewarded, and most women train a variety of double flips to make it through the rounds, then bring out their most intricate jump – more often than not, also a double – for when the medals are awarded.

Caldwell doesn’t go that route. She tries triples every time she steps onto the hill.

It adds extra – some might say unnecessary – risk to the early rounds. When the field was being cut from 12 to nine at world championships, for instance, Caldwell didn’t land her triple flip. She was able to squeak into the top nine and advance only because her degree of difficulty for the triple was so high.

“I’m OK sacrificing some good competition results to increase my consistency on the triple,” says Caldwell, giving a nod to the reality that training days on snow are precious and she needs to use them to focus on the jumps she’ll be performing when the contests start.

The recently ended season tested the limits of how much Caldwell was willing to sacrifice. In meet after meet, from Moscow to Minsk to an Olympic test event in South Korea, difficulties with the triple kept her far away from the podium. In the World Cup standings, Caldwell finished 10th.

To her, that’s more a badge of honor than a sign of failure. In a sport that oddly transforms daredevils into conformists, and rewards consistency over risk-taking, Caldwell plans to keep pushing anyway.

In doing triples, her mission is as much about winning as bringing others along for the ride.

“I want the crowd to feel like they know who won,” Caldwell said. “I want it to be impressive. I just want people to say, `That’s sweet. That’s what’s deserved.’ If a lot of girls are doing triples up there and I fall, there would still be a lot of girls who would do well. I’m cool with that. If I mess up, that’s OK. But I want the sport to look good.”

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VIDEO: Top U.S. aerials skier crashes hard at World Cup