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Ted Ligety finally healthy again as Alpine season starts

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The last time Ted Ligety felt this confident, this healthy and this fast on his skis was ages ago.

Oct. 25, 2015, in Soelden, Austria, to be more precise — the date of his last World Cup victory.

Since that day, the U.S. Alpine skier tweaked his back, frayed the cartilage in his hip, torn the ACL in his right knee and wrenched his back again — to the point where he needed season-ending surgery last January to fix herniated disks.

Almost immediately after the surgery he felt better.

Three months after the procedure, he was training again.

And now, Ligety’s progressed to the place where he can actually envision himself defending his Olympic giant slalom title at the Winter Games in PyeongChang in February.

“I’m excited to have a year where I can be healthy and start to push my skiing,” said Ligety, who will race Sunday in the season-opening World Cup giant slalom in Soelden, Austria. “That will be a huge relief, because if I can keep on this trajectory I’m on right now, I know I can ski fast.”

Ligety tried to grit through the pain of a balky back a season ago.

It turned out to be too much to bear for the skier who’s a five-time World Cup giant slalom season champion, five-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist.

“Every time I hit a bump, I was in 9 out of a 10 pain,” Ligety said. “Trying to do that every single turn for a World Cup race is really difficult. That was extremely frustrating, but that’s the life of an athlete.”

The persistent back trouble came on the heels of tearing his ACL during a training mishap in Oberjoch, Germany, in January 2016.

The skier once referred to as “Mr. GS” by his rivals has also dealt with hip issues.

Given all the time he’s missed over the years, Ligety doesn’t feel like anywhere near the favorite heading into PyeongChang.

That distinction, in his mind, belongs to six-time defending World Cup overall champion Marcel Hirscher, who’s currently sidelined after breaking his left ankle in August when he straddled a slalom gate during practice.

The Austrian Hirscher could be back for World Cup races in Beaver Creek, Colo., that begin Dec. 1.

“I’ve got to raise my game for sure,” said Ligety, who has a giant slalom gold from Sochi to go with the combined crown he captured in Torino. “When I was winning races a couple of years ago, that’s the level these guys have surpassed. I have to go beyond what I’ve done in the past. That’s good the sport is evolving and getting better. That’s definitely an inspiration to me, to push myself even harder, to try and figure out ways to get faster.

“Throughout my career, I’ve always thrived when there have been changes and I’ve needed to come up with something new to get faster.”

Over the last few months, he’s been diligently training and feeling no pain in his surgically repaired back.

None whatsoever.

“My body feels very solid now,” he said. “It’s now about getting back up to speed and getting race ready.”

Ligety became a father in late June when he and wife Mia welcomed Jax Ligety into the world.

He recently posted on Instagram how the “duffel bag life is tougher these days,” after a training trip to New Zealand.

The plan is for the family to follow him around the World Cup circuit beginning in January and carry into the Olympics.

“It’s definitely hard to balance, in the sense you don’t want to miss anything,” Ligety said of ski racing and fatherhood. “I want to do all the stuff that involves being a dad, and being there for my kid and watching him grow up. I’m balancing those two things.

“At least I’m my own boss in this job, so I’m able to work my schedule around day time to get my workouts in and still be with him.”

Now 33, Ligety’s started to contemplate just how much longer he wants to keep racing. He’s already launched a successful company, Shred, which makes goggles, sunglasses, gloves and other products.

“The road is coming closer to an end, but it’s not next year or the year after that. We’ll play it year by year, I guess,” Ligety said. “I’d like to leave on a high note.”

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Skylar Diggins-Smith has the opportunity to fill USA Basketball’s need

Skylar Diggins
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Skylar Diggins-Smith said making the U.S. Olympic team is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This is her second chance.

An ACL tear derailed her Rio 2016 hopes. That happened in a WNBA game on June 28, 2015.

Though Diggins-Smith was among 25 Olympic finalists named in January 2016, she didn’t return to game action until that May, four weeks after the 12-woman Olympic team was chosen.

The 27-year-old guard said she’s played for USA Basketball for 12 years, since before her standout Notre Dame career that led to her current stint with the Dallas Wings (formerly Tulsa Shock).

“This is the most clear my mind has been,” with USA Basketball, Diggins-Smith said from training camp in Seattle on Tuesday, ahead of a Thursday exhibition against China at Key Arena (10 p.m. ET, usab.com/live).

Signs point to Diggins-Smith making her major international tournament debut at September’s FIBA World Cup, the quadrennial world championship event.

Though Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi‘s surprising returns crowd the backcourt, the other Olympic gold medalist guard, Lindsay Whalen, retired from the national team.

Diggins-Smith’s play last season, her first full campaign back from the ACL tear, boosts her case. She made the All-WNBA First Team.

She also made the first team in 2014. That year, Diggins-Smith was among the final cuts for the world championship team less than a week before the tournament.

“Every time I come to USA Basketball, I think you have a tendency to kind of overthink,” Diggins-Smith said Tuesday. “You just want to do the right thing, don’t really want to make mistakes. … You want to do the right thing, and you press a little bit.”

USA Basketball has stressed finding its next stalwart point guard following five-time Olympian Teresa Edwards, three-time Olympian Dawn Staley (now the U.S. head coach) and the 37-year-old Bird, eyeing her fifth Olympics in 2020.

“Give me three guards that have separated themselves from everyone else in the WNBA to put themselves at the same level as Sue, Diana, Lindsay Whalen,” then-U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said after the Olympic team was named in April 2016. “You really start to look around and, you go, that is a huge question that has to be answered.”

“Obviously, there’s a need,” Staley said in February, listing point guards other than Bird at that camp.

The first name Staley mentioned was Diggins-Smith, for what it’s worth.

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USA Track and Field to honor 1968 Olympic team on 50th anniversary

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USA Track and Field begins a campaign this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Olympic team.

Members of the Mexico City Games team, one of the greatest track and field teams in history, will be honored at high-profile events the remainder of the year.

The campaign, “1968-2018: Celebrating Athletic Achievement and Courage,” culminates with a “Night of Legends” reunion in December at the USATF Annual Meeting in Columbus, Ohio, also attended by current U.S. stars.

The 1968 Olympic team is most remembered for Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who took gold and bronze in the 200m and were sent home after raising their black-gloved fists in a human rights salute during the national anthem.

The team also included gold medalists Bob Beamon (long jump), Dick Fosbury (high jump), Al Oerter (discus), Wyomia Tyus and Jim Hines (100m), Lee Evans (400m), Madeline Manning Mims (800m), Willie Davenport (110m hurdles), Bob Seagren (pole vault), Randy Matson (shot put), Bill Toomey (decathlon) and the men’s and women’s 4x100m and men’s 4x400m.

“The legacy of the greatest track & field team to ever be assembled is still felt 50 years later,” USATF CEO Max Siegel said in a press release. “These Olympians persevered through athletic challenges and social injustices, maintaining their composure and dignity when others may have fallen. It is USATF’s honor to pay homage to their achievements and bring the team together for an epic celebration at our Annual Meeting.”

U.S. track and field athletes will compete at two meets on NBC Sports and NBC Sports Gold this weekend — the Drake Relays and Penn Relays.

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WATCH: NBC Olympics documentary on 1968 Olympics