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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

Julia Mancuso pushes past hip injury for final Olympic run

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When Julia Mancuso was 18 years old, a doctor told the ski racer that she needed to make a choice.

Continue competing (Mancuso had already been to an Olympics at age 17) or live a healthy life.

Mancuso was born with hip displaysia, a misalignment of hip bones that causes the joint to deteriorate faster than normal. The doctor told Mancuso she needed reconstructive surgery.

“I left crying and never went back to that doctor,” she said.

Mancuso went to the slopes instead.

In 15 years since that doctor’s visit, she put together one of the greatest Alpine careers in U.S. history — four Olympic medals (most by a U.S. female skier), five world championships medals and 36 World Cup podiums.

The right hip problems persisted. Mancuso did undergo hip surgery after her breakthrough Olympic giant slalom title in 2006.

The pain returned and, by 2015, became unbearable.

She underwent another hip surgery, this one much more complicated. The operation fixed cartilage damage, cleaned up bone spurs and put more anchors in her labrum because of a slight tear with doctors warning that her hip would probably be 90 percent of what it was, according to The Associated Press.

Mancuso spent six months on crutches. When she returns to the World Cup circuit this fall, Mancuso will have gone more than two and a half years between races.

“It’s really hard for me to walk normally,” Mancuso said last month. “A lot of people ask me why I’m doing it [skiing], because I can’t even walk. Why would I ski? The truth is, skiing is way easier. Skiing is fun because it is easy, and my body loves it. My body loves to ski, and my body needs to ski. … It improves my quality of life.”

Because of her hip, Mancuso said PyeongChang will be her fifth and final Olympics, should she make it there. She might not compete beyond next season.

The U.S. women’s speed team is deep — Lindsey Vonn, World Cup podium finishers Laurenne Ross, Jackie Wiles and Stacey Cook, the young Breezy Johnson. Even Mikaela Shiffrin dabbles. A maximum of four women per nation can start an Olympic race.

The super combined, where Mancuso earned silver and bronze medals at the last two Olympics, appears to be her best shot.

Mancuso is nothing if not dedicated, evidenced by Instagram Stories workout diaries. This complements her laid-back lifestyle, spending half her time in Fiji with her husband of five months and much of the other half in Maui.

She already has post-PyeongChang plans, to honeymoon in Tonga and dive with whales.

Before that, Mancuso hopes to have one more surprise Olympic season.

In 2006, she made her first World Cup podium two weeks before the Torino Winter Games, then won the giant slalom in Torino.

In 2010, she took silver in the Vancouver downhill and super combined despite making zero World Cup podiums in the previous two years.

In 2014, Mancuso snagged combined bronze thanks to the fastest downhill run in Sochi. That came during a season where her best World Cup finish was seventh.

Just making the Olympic team would mean history. No U.S. woman has competed in five Winter Games. Mancuso, halfpipe snowboarder Kelly Clark and cross-country skier Kikkan Randall can become the first.

Mancuso could also become the oldest female Olympic Alpine medalist.

“I’m excited to put my biggest and last effort into these next Olympics,” Mancuso said, “and then see what happens.”

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Grand Prix figure skating assignments announced; Olympic champions absent

Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner
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Nathan ChenAshley WagnerKaren Chen and Maia and Alex Shibutani headline Skate America in November, highlighting this fall’s Grand Prix assignments announced Friday.

Gracie Gold is at Cup of China and Internationaux de France, also in November.

U.S. champion Nathan Chen and Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu will both debut at Rostelecom Cup, the first of six Grand Prix events, in late October.

That will mark an early season test for Chen, an 18-year-old who beat Hanyu at the Four Continents Championships at the PyeongChang Olympic venue last February but fell to sixth at worlds won by Hanyu in April.

Chen’s top challengers at Skate America in Lake Placid, N.Y., are world bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China and training partner and 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon.

Grand Prix Assignments: Men | Women | PairsIce Dance

Wagner, a three-time U.S. champion coming off her least successful season in six years, and the surprise U.S. champion Karen Chen are both entered in Skate Canada in October and Skate America.

Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, the two-time reigning world champion, is entered in Rostelecom Cup and NHK Trophy in Japan. She’ll face Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy in both events, as well as Mariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu, who finished three-four at the U.S. Championships in January.

The two-time U.S. champion Gold, who changed coaches after a disastrous season, will get an up-close look at Russian world junior champion Alina Zagitova at her two events in China and France.

Polina Edmunds, the youngest U.S. competitor across all sports at the Sochi Olympics at age 15, is entered in France as well. Edmunds hasn’t competed since the January 2016 U.S. Championships due to a bone bruise in her right foot.

Sochi Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova is not entered in any Grand Prix events.

She has not competed since placing sixth at the December 2015 Russian Championships but recently hired four-time Olympic medalist Yevgeny Plushenko as a new coach.

Also absent from the Grand Prix lists are Olympic pairs champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov after Volosozhar gave birth to their daughter Feb. 16.

The Russian pair hasn’t competed since finishing sixth at the 2016 World Championships, their first time outside the top two in 19 top-level international competitions together.

Sotnikova and Volosozhar and Trankov could still be added to Rostelecom Cup as there are open spots for Russians in each discipline at that event.

Skate America, the biggest annual international event in the U.S., is one month later in this season’s calendar, taking place Thanksgiving weekend.

Here’s the full Grand Prix schedule:

Rostelecom Cup (Moscow) — Oct. 20-22
Skate Canada (Regina) — Oct. 27-29
Cup of China (Beijing) — Nov. 3-5
NHK Trophy (Osaka) — Nov. 10-12
Internationaux de France (Grenoble) — Nov. 17-19
Skate America (Lake Placid) — Nov. 24-26
Grand Prix Final (Nagoya, Japan) — Dec. 7-10

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