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Ilka Stuhec looks to keep breakout season going at World Cup Finals

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ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — It’s easy to spot Slovenia’s Ilka Stuhec in her lime green speed suit.

Almost as easy is finding her name in the standings — just look near the top.

On skis waxed, tuned and maintained by her mom, Stuhec is in the midst of a breakout season that has her on the verge of clinching the downhill and super-G titles this week at the World Cup Finals.

The 26-year-old will certainly be one of the skiers to watch heading into the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, possibly even the one to give four-time overall World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn a strong push in the speed events.

All this success, though, has caught even Stuhec by surprise.

“I knew I was skiing good and capable of a lot of things. But it’s quite more than I expected,” said Stuhec, who turned in the second-fastest downhill training run Monday, 0.14 seconds behind the time posted by Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany. “After it started to happen, I was just really enjoying it, having fun skiing, getting more and more confident of myself and my skiing. I like it.”

Although she’s been on the World Cup circuit for quite some time, she’s uncovered another gear this season. She also capitalized on Vonn’s early absence — along with Swiss skier Lara Gut‘s season-ending knee injury — to appear on the podium 11 times, including six wins.

Stuhec is 97 points in front of Italy’s Sofia Goggia in the season-long downhill title race with only Wednesday’s competition remaining. Things are a little tighter in the super-G race, with Stuhec holding a scant 15-point advantage over Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein.

“No pressure. Not at all,” Stuhec said. “I was really looking forward to getting here.”

She’s a fan of this hill, too, with its grippy and spring-like conditions.

“The snow is perfect,” said Stuhec, who trails American Mikaela Shiffrin by a nearly insurmountable 378 points in the overall race. “I hope we will get a little bit of sun over the next days. It will be fun.”

Really, it’s not as if she arrived out of nowhere. Stuhec won a super-G title at the 2008 World Junior Championships. But she’s been hampered over her career by a right knee that’s required five surgeries.

She ultimately lost funding on the Slovenian ski team, forcing her to set up her own team. Now traveling the World Cup circuit with her own coach and her mother, Darja Crnko, who prepares her skis, Stuhec has found success. There have been accounts of her mom’s willingness to mortgage their house in order to keep her career going.

Asked if that was true, she just smiled.

“Almost,” said Stuhec, who switched skis this season. “We did struggle a lot before. Now, it’s way easier. I’m not happy that it happened, but I learned a lot. I learned a lot about myself, about people around me. I think I wouldn’t be the same as I am today if nothing would’ve happened.”

Recently, Stuhec captured the downhill title at the world championships in Switzerland. By doing so, she kept the title in the Slovenian family as she succeeded the 2015 World downhill winner, Tina Maze, who’s now retired.

Stuhec said she doesn’t stay in contact much with Maze.

“It’s been interesting, her team compared to Tina’s team. They did things a lot differently,” said Vonn, dealing with a cold as she finished sixth in the training run Monday. “I was always interested to see what she did. She has her mother as her technician. It’s a really interesting dynamic and seems to work really well for her. It’s nice to see her having such a successful season.”

Especially with Winter Games around the corner. At the World Cup race on the Olympic course earlier this month, Stuhec finished third in the super-G and third in the downhill. She also has Olympic experience, taking 10th in the downhill at the 2014 Sochi Games and 13th in the super-G.

“I never give up,” Stuhec said, “no matter how hard it was.”

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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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