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Top U.S. skier grapples with fear, doubt after latest, most difficult injury

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U.S. Olympic Alpine skier Laurenne Ross is reminded every time she looks into a mirror. Of that crash 19 years ago.

“My cheek was basically torn off of my face, and I had a serious concussion,” Ross said. “I had over 100 stitches in my cheek.

“To see these scars as a positive part of who I am has taken my whole life, and I’m still working on it.”

Ross was introduced to skiing at 18 months old by her father, a former Canadian ski racer.

Since 2006, the Oregonian has shattered her pelvis and dislocated her shoulder ten times. She blew out her left ACL in 2008. She has broken a lot of bones in her hands and wrists. A labral tear in her hip. Concussions. A few bulging discs. Two severe ankle sprains. Add multiple severe facial lacerations, accumulating more than 200 stitches in her face.

Then came March 27. Another crash at the U.S. Championships in Sugarloaf, Maine. She blew out her right knee.

“This specific injury,” said Ross, on crutches four weeks later and overcome with emotion, “is by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever been through.”

The 28-year-old Ross is the second-best speed racer on the U.S. team behind Lindsey Vonn.

Her last two seasons have been the best of her eight-year World Cup career.

Nine top-10 finishes in 2015-16. Another seven this past season. She was fifth in the world championships downhill and fourth in the downhill at the Olympic test event in South Korea.

Ross made her first Olympic team in Sochi, where she was 11th in the downhill. She was shaping up for medal contention in PyeongChang until that March 27 crash. A podium is still possible next February, but it will take an incredible climb.

Ross wrote that not being able to ski again is “a real possibility” in a passionate blog post titled “My First Steps,” published six weeks after the crash.

“With this injury (as with many) has come so many questions, concerns, doubts, considerations,” she wrote. “What if I can’t get strong enough to return to the level of skiing I was maintaining before my crash? What if I get back on skis and am stricken with doubt, crippled by fear? What if…what if I can’t even ski again? Though it’s unlikely, it is a real possibility. And then…what? Although I have deliberated on this before, never have I done so so thoroughly.”

Ross has the whole offseason to think deeply. The 2017-18 season’s first speed races will likely be in late November or early December.

“I want to be the one who decides when I’m done ski racing,” Ross wrote. “I don’t want my body to hold me back, or the [U.S.] Ski Team to make that decision for me. I want to leave on my own terms. And I don’t think I’m ready to do that yet….But what if I don’t have a choice? What if I’m forced to move on by the powers that be? How do I come to terms with that?”

Ross has interests outside of skiing. She journals daily, knits and can play the piano, guitar, violin and cello. She takes classes at the University of Oregon after each season, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. She jokes her hope is to graduate within the next 10 years.

“I feel like I am my truest self when I’m on my skis,” Ross said last month, adding later on her blog, “This break from skiing is only going to make me miss it more, make me hungry, and make me fierce. But if it doesn’t work out, there is another endeavor waiting for me — waiting for all of us — when this one comes to an end.”

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Michael Phelps still has ‘no desire’ to come back

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Michael Phelps says he has “no desire” to return to competitive swimming, but he is eager to stay involved with the sport and cheer on those who follow in his enormous wake.

In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press while promoting a healthy pet food campaign, Phelps said he is excited about the birth of his second child and numerous opportunities away from the pool.

It was around this time four years ago when Phelps got serious about ending his first retirement, but he now seems content with his decision to step away again after the Rio Olympics.

His wife, Nicole, is about four months pregnant. The couple already has a 16-month-old son, Boomer.

“I’ve got no desire, no desire to come back,” the 32-year-old Phelps said flatly.

Phelps has attended a handful of swimming meets since the Rio Games, where the winningest athlete in Olympic history added to his already massive career haul by claiming five gold medals plus a silver. A few months ago, he conceded to the AP that he was eager to see how he would feel about a possible comeback after this year’s world championships in Budapest, Hungary.

Turns out, it had no impact.

Phelps said watching others compete “truly didn’t kick anything off or spike any more interest in coming out of retirement again.”

He is eager to follow the development of his heir apparent, Caeleb Dressel, who emerged as the sport’s newest star by winning seven gold medals at Budapest. The 21-year-old Floridian joined Phelps and Mark Spitz as the only swimmers to accomplish that feat at a major international meet.

“I’m happy Caeleb decided to go off this year instead of last year,” Phelps joked. “I’m kind of happy to see him swimming so well when I’m not there.”

With Dressel and Katie Ledecky now leading the American team, the U.S. is expected to remain the world’s dominant swimming country heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Even without Phelps.

“It’s time to kind of move on,” he said, “and watch other people come into their own.”

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Dutch cyclist returns from horrific Rio crash to win world title

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Dutch road cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten came back from this dramatic Rio Olympic crash to win her first world title on Tuesday, taking the time trial in Bergen, Norway.

“This one is really beautiful without the crash in Rio, but this makes the story really, really special,” an emotional van Vleuten said. “Actually, I still cannot believe it. … This season I’m surprising myself what I can do. To be world champion in the time trial, I never thought I’d be able of this.”

Van Vleuten, 34, covered the 13-mile course in 28 minutes, 50.35 seconds, topping countrywoman Anna ven der Breggen by 12 seconds.

Australian Katrin Garfoot took bronze, 19.02 seconds ahead of Chloe Dygert, a U.S. Olympic silver medalist in track cycling. American Amber Neben, the defending champion, was 11th.

Full results are here.

In Rio, van Vleuten suffered three small spine fractures and a concussion when her brakes appeared to lock, and she flipped over into a ditch during the road race. Van Vleuten was alone in the lead at the time with about seven miles to go of the 87-mile course.

She was eventually hospitalized in intensive care.

Van der Breggen went on to win the Olympic title.

Van Vleuten wasn’t out long. She raced at last October’s world championships, placing a career-high fifth in the time trial. She then won La Course in France, a two-day race, in July.

“To be an athlete is to have really ups and downs,” van Vleuten said Tuesday. “Sometimes really downs, but the downs make the ups even more beautiful, I think.”

Van Vleuten’s first celebratory act Tuesday was to climb past two barriers and into her mother’s arms.

“Last year my mum watched the Rio race on television, it was her birthday and she was with lots of my family, so it was a really hard day for her,” Van Vleuten said in a news conference, according to Cyclingnews.com. “My father died in 2008, and so it was really special to have her here and celebrate the good things of cycling together. We’ve dealt with bad things together in the past, so it’s important to be really happy and proud to celebrate and to also remember my father.”

The world championships continue Wednesday with the men’s time trial at 7 a.m. ET on the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBCSports.com/live.

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