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Mikaela Shiffrin, seeking title, makes rare start with Lindsey Vonn

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CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy (AP) — Mikaela Shiffrin is making a rare start in a speed race this weekend to protect her overall World Cup lead.

A specialist in slalom and giant slalom, the American will enter Sunday’s super-G on the Olympia delle Tofane course in Cortina, Italy — marking only the fourth super-G race of her career.

NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app will live stream the downhill Saturday (4:30 a.m. ET) and the super-G Sunday (5:30 a.m. ET).

“She’ll take every opportunity she can to score as many World Cup points as she can,” U.S. head coach Paul Kristofic said Thursday. “This is a hill that always has good conditions and we know that and we felt it was a super-G that suits her well and that’s why we targeted it from the beginning.”

Having taken part in just one speed weekend this season — performing averagely in Lake Louise, Alberta, in early December — Shiffrin’s lead over defending champion Lara Gut in the overall is down to 130 points, nearly a third of what the margin was just a couple of weeks ago.

Shiffrin decided not to enter Saturday’s downhill or even the downhill training sessions, which would have given her a better feeling for the Cortina course.

“It’s always a fine balance between, ‘Do you take one downhill training run?’ vs. ‘How about a day of training somewhere else where you can focus on your other disciplines?’ That’s athletic management, trying to get the most out of every day we have available,” Kristofic said. “And when you’re racing multiple disciplines, those days are few and far between so you have to maximize what you’ve got available to you.”

While Shiffrin makes her debut in Cortina — long considered the premier event on the women’s tour — another American skier, Lindsey Vonn, will be the star attraction at the resort where she has won a record 11 races, including a sweep of the downhill and super-G races on the Tofane last year.

Vonn won a downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, last weekend in just her second race back from nearly a year out with a knee injury and a broken arm. She’s still regaining her form in super-G, though, as evidenced by her ninth-place result in that discipline in Garmisch.

“It’s a building process. We’re taking it step by step,” Kristofic said. “The timing in super-G is the trickiest part. You get a lot of force in the ski and a lot of things happening in a short amount of time and only one chance to look at the course.”

Two years ago, Vonn broke Annemarie Moser-Proell‘s all-time women’s World Cup record of 62 wins circuit-wide in Cortina. Vonn now has 77 victories and is approaching Ingemar Stenmark‘s men’s mark of 86.

Meanwhile, Julia Mancuso completed her first official downhill training run Thursday as she attempts to return from hip surgery. The four-time Olympic medalist placed 49th, nearly five seconds behind leader Ilka Stuhec of Slovenia.

“It’s a long-term process for her,” Kristofic said.

Mancuso will also likely focus on Sunday’s super-G.

“In downhill in particular it’s unlikely that she’ll race,” Kristofic said.

Gut placed second in training and Vonn was third. Americans Laurenne Ross and Jacqueline Wiles finished sixth and 16th, respectively.

“Laurenne has had great speed all year. She unfortunately had a bit of bad luck around Val d’Isere,” Kristofic said, recalling how Ross got sick and could not race the downhill in the French resort after leading training.

Ross also got injured in a training crash in Garmisch.

“So a little bad luck,” Kristofic said. “She’s looking to have a breakthrough here and have a great result.”

Wiles scored her first career podium with a third-place result in Austria earlier this month.

“(Cortina) is a true downhillers course and Jackie is a true downhiller,” Kristofic said. “Everything that makes a great downhiller, she’s got it. It’s consistency for her and trying to build that every run.”

This is the U.S. team’s final weekend of qualifying for next month’s world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland. So far, only Shiffrin, Vonn and Wiles have qualified automatically with their podium results.

“There’s an ongoing battle for those spots, so we’ll see how the weekend plays out,” Kristofic said.

Having Vonn back has energized the entire team.

“We missed her terribly when she was not with us and when she’s back it’s a huge bonus for us,” Kristofic said. “It definitely lifts the team and also brings good pace to our training and puts the bar higher and everyone usually steps up.”

MORE: Vonn sets date on proposal to enter men’s race

Yuzuru Hanyu opens Olympic season with record score

Yuzuru Hanyu
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A sore knee didn’t hold Yuzuru Hanyu back. A record score to open his Olympic season.

The Olympic and world champion from Japan hit a pair of quadruple jumps in his short program at the Autumn Classic, a lower-level event in Montreal.

He was rewarded with 112.72 points, the highest short program score recorded under the 13-year-old judging system. Video is here.

It looked like a home competition for Hanyu.

Upon finishing, he bowed toward one set of bleachers (maybe a dozen rows) at the Sportsplexe Pierrefonds. More than two dozen Japanese flags made it hard to see most of the faces.

He bettered Javier Fernández, a two-time world champion and training partner, by 11.52 points. Fernández also landed two quadruple jumps to tally 101.2.

Full scores will be here upon the conclusion of the short program. The free skate is Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. A live stream is here.

Hanyu now owns the three highest short program scores under the 13-year-old system. The other two were set in the 2015-16 season.

Showdowns like Hanyu-Fernández are usually reserved for, at the earliest, the Grand Prix series in late October and November.

Hanyu and Fernández are very familiar with each other, having shared a coach in Canadian Brian Orser, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist, since 2012. They train in Toronto.

In that time, Hanyu became the first Japanese man to win an Olympic title (and the second teen from any nation to do it). He followed it up with world titles later in 2014 and this year.

Fernández achieved unfathomable success for a Spanish skater — world titles in 2015 and 2016, overtaking Hanyu in the free skate both times.

In PyeongChang, Hanyu can become the first man to repeat as Olympic champion since Dick Button in 1952. Fernández can become the third Spaniard to earn a Winter Olympic medal of any color in any sport, and the first since 1992.

The figure skating season continues next week with Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the final Olympic qualifying competition. North Korea could clinch its first spots in any sport for the Olympics in the pairs event.

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USOC letter assures Olympians about South Korea security

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The U.S. Olympic Committee’s security chief sent a letter to potential Winter Olympians saying there are no indications that recent developments between the U.S. and North Korea have compromised security in South Korea.

The letter, obtained by The Associated Press shortly after it was sent Friday, makes no suggestion that the U.S. is considering skipping the PyeongChang Winter Games for security reasons.

But Chief Security Officer Nicole Deal does write that provocations that have been volleyed between the United States and North Korea are likely to persist for the foreseeable future, and “should not be dismissed as insignificant nor feared as precursors of an inevitable conflict.”

The letter comes at the end of a week in which France’s sports minister suggested the country’s athletes would stay home if security could not be guaranteed.

The International Olympic Committee, trying to calm concerns, reiterated that in conversations with high-level officials in China and South Korea, none have expressed doubt about the Winter Games proceeding as scheduled, next February.

The USOC also sent out a public statement Friday from CEO Scott Blackmun.

“We will continue to work with our State Department and local organizers to ensure that our athletes, and our entire delegation, are safe,” he said.

The letter, sent to athletes, national governing bodies and other Olympic leaders in the United States, said the USOC’s security division is operating as “business as usual for our security planning and preparations.”

Deal writes that the USOC is reviewing crisis management plans that address a range of potential scenarios “to ensure our athletes, and our entire delegation, are safe.”

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