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U.S. cross-country skiers mark most successful world championships

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LAHTI, Finland (AP) — Think of a U.S. skiing medal contender for the Winter Olympics, and Lindsey Vonn or Bode Miller flying down the side of a mountain often come to mind. But now a tight-knit team is showing the United States can succeed in the grueling world of cross-country skiing, too.

The U.S. women’s cross-country ski team marked its most successful world championships in Finland with three medals from six events, raising hopes ahead of the 2018 Olympics.

While the team couldn’t end the championships with a medal in Saturday’s 30km freestyle, fifth place for Minnesota-born Jessie Diggins was another record-high finish for the U.S.

Diggins finished the championships with silver in the individual sprint and bronze in the team sprint, the latter honor remarkable because the race was strictly in classic style. This tends to favor European skiers, rather than the skate-skiing style which is the U.S. specialty.

Until eight years ago, the U.S. women’s team had never won a cross-country medal at the world championships, but now it’s a contender in almost every race.

Kikkan Randall, the pioneering U.S. medalist back in 2009, has mentored a new generation including Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen, who won bronze alongside Diggins in the team sprint. It’s a change from the days when Randall was the only standout U.S. cross-country skier.

“Before, I wished for teammates,” the 34-year-old Randall, who won individual sprint bronze last week, told The Associated Press. “Now it’s a challenge just to make our relay (team), everybody’s skiing so fast.”

It’s a success created in the wilds of Alaska, where the U.S. team often trains at Eagle Glacier, a spartan base reached by helicopter. Training and competing together year-round has forged a tight bond. Diggins says she considers her teammates her “big sisters.”

Historically, however, the Olympics have been a stumbling block for U.S. cross-country skiers. Randall was hotly favored for a sprint medal in 2014, but was eliminated in the quarterfinals. A silver medalist in 1976, Bill Koch was much hyped ahead of the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, but also failed to medal.

This time round the U.S. has new strength in depth as a team. Randall, who plans to retire after the PyeongChang Olympics, is aiming for a medal in one of the two team events.

“With the success we’ve had here,” she said, “I’m really excited about our chances next year.”

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MORE: ‘Worst skier alive’ makes it to cross-country worlds after deportation

Chloe Kim, Adam Rippon, Rachael Denhollander among Time 100

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PyeongChang medalists Chloe Kim and Adam Rippon were among four Olympians named to the 2018 Time 100, along with former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse.

The other Olympians were Kevin Durant and Roger Federer on the most influential people list. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt also made it.

Kim made the list as a pioneer. Award-winning chef David Chang, a second-generation Korean American and special correspondent for NBC at the PyeongChang Olympics, wrote an essay about watching the snowboarder take halfpipe gold.

“I felt two things simultaneously: incredibly happy for her — I made her a celebratory churro ice cream sandwich, which I think she called “bomb” — but also sad, because the whole world was about to descend on this now 17-year-old girl,” he wrote. “Asian-­American fans further piled on their hopes that she would shatter Asian stereotypes on her way to the podium. And to top it all off, she was competing in her parents’ birth country, one that is notoriously judgmental of its diaspora.

“And you know what? She crushed it. Blew us all out of the water. Now the best thing Chloe Kim can do is be Chloe Kim. That’s not being selfish—that’s letting people know they don’t have to be anything that anyone says they should be.”

Cher wrote the Time essay for Rippon, the first openly gay figure skater to compete for a U.S. Olympic team.

“Adam is a skater who happens to be gay, and that represents something wonderful to young people,” she wrote. “When I was young, I had no role models—everyone looked like Sandra Dee and Doris Day. There was nobody who made me think, Oh, I could be like them. They represent me. Adam shows people that if you put blood, sweat and tears into what you’re doing, you can achieve something that’s special. You can be special. And I think that’s very brave.”

Like Rippon, the gymnast Denhollander made the Time 100 in the icon category. Olympic champion gymnast Aly Raisman, also a Nassar survivor, penned an essay.

“Rachael was there for each court session of that sentencing, each impact statement and each fellow survivor,” Raisman wrote. “This show of courage and conviction inspired many people to feel less like victims and more like survivors. We still have a long way to go before we achieve all the change that is so desperately needed, and I am grateful to be fighting alongside Rachael, my sister survivor!”

Here are Olympians and Paralympians on past Time 100 lists, counting only athletes who had competed in the Games before being listed:

2017 — Simone Biles, LeBron James, Neymar
2016 — Usain BoltCaitlyn JennerKatie LedeckySania MirzaRonda Rousey
2015 — Abby Wambach
2014 — Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams
2013 — LeBron James, Li Na, Lindsey Vonn
2012 — Novak DjokovicLionel MessiOscar Pistorius
2011 — Lionel Messi
2010 — Yuna KimSerena Williams
2009 — Rafael Nadal
2008 — Andre Agassi, Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius
2007 — Roger FedererChien Ming-Wang
2006 — Joey Cheek, Steve Nash
2005 — LeBron James
2004 — Lance Armstrong, Paula Radcliffe, Yao Ming
2000 (20th Century) — Muhammad Ali

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MORE: Rippon among Olympians in People’s Beautiful Issue

McKayla Maroney: I would have starved at Olympics without Larry Nassar

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McKayla Maroney said she thought she “would have starved at the Olympics” in 2012 if Larry Nassar didn’t bring her food.

“Your coaches are just always watching you and wanting to keep you skinny,” Maroney said in an interview with Savannah Guthrie that will air in full on an hourlong “Dateline” special Sunday at 7 p.m. ET. “There’s just other things about the culture that are also messed up that he used against us.”

Past U.S. national team coordinators Bela and Martha Karolyi also gave interviews for the Dateline special “Silent No More.”

Maroney laughed when she said Nassar bought her a loaf of bread.

Her comments were shown on TODAY on Thursday, less than a day after her 2012 Olympic champion teammate Jordyn Wieber testified at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing to discuss the roles of national governing bodies — like USA Gymnastics — in protecting athletes following the Nassar case.

“We couldn’t smile or laugh in training,” Wieber said at the hearing. “We were even afraid to eat too much in front of our coaches, who were pressured to keep us thin.”

Maroney, Wieber and other U.S. national team gymnasts had personal coaches and convened multiple times per year at the Karolyi ranch in Texas for national team camps. Wieber’s personal coach, John Geddert, was the 2012 Olympic team coach.

Geddert was suspended by USA Gymnastics in January and is facing a criminal investigation after Nassar, who molested girls at Geddert’s gym in Michigan, was sentenced to 40 to 125 years in prison on Jan. 24. Geddert said he had “zero knowledge” of Nassar’s crimes.

“Our athletes, like McKayla, are the heart and soul of USA Gymnastics, and every effort has been made to support our athletes’ development and provide the opportunities for them to achieve their dreams.” USA Gymnastics said in a statement to NBC News.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MORE: Full transcript of McKayla Maroney’s first comments since Larry Nassar case