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Men’s Alpine skiing season storylines

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Three storylines for the Olympic men’s Alpine skiing season ahead of Sunday’s World Cup opener in Soelden, Austria …

1. Marcel Hirscher’s comeback

The Austrian had been on such a roll — a record six straight World Cup overall titles — that he looked like a contender for four gold medals in PyeongChang (slalom, giant slalom, super combined and team event).

Then, on Aug. 17, Hirscher broke his left ankle in training (video here). It’s Hirscher’s first major injury since he became the world’s best skier in 2012, and it comes less than six months before what should be the last Olympics of his prime.

He’s likely out until December, missing the opening technical races of the season in Soelden and Levi, Finland, on Nov. 12. Hirscher has been so strong that he would have won the overall title the last two seasons if one excludes his points from Soelden and Levi.

So a seventh straight overall title is still possible, but it just got more difficult. Combine that with the pressure on Hirscher this season to deliver his first Olympic gold medal come February. It may well be a legacy-defining season for him.

“The only thing I can do next season is [lose],” Hirscher said in March, via NBC Olympic research. “Because if I’m finishing second, in the Austrian press, it would be a disaster.”

2. The men out to dethrone Hirscher

If there is a new overall champion this year, it could be any type of racer.

In the last two seasons, three very different skiers made up Nos. 2-4 in the final standings, within an average of fewer than 100 points of each other — France’s Alexis Pinturault and Norwegians Kjetil Jansrud and Henrik Kristoffersen.

Come February, they will be vying for medals in different Olympic events, but until then all chase the World Cup overall.

Pinturault fits the mold the best. He’s 26, a prime age, and an all-around racer capable of winning giant slaloms and combineds while making the top 10 in slalom and super-G. He won four races last season, breaking Jean-Claude Killy‘s record for World Cup victories by a Frenchman.

Jansrud and Kristoffersen are opposites. Jansrud, 32, has succeeded the injury-plagued Aksel Lund Svindal as Norway’s downhill king. Kristoffersen, 23, emerged as Hirscher’s biggest slalom rival in this Olympic cycle.

If Pinturault is strong across the board, it’s unlikely that Jansrud and Kristoffersen can rack up enough points in speed and technical events, respectively, to challenge him.

3. State of the United States

The Americans are at risk of leaving the Winter Games without a men’s Alpine medal for the first time since 1998.

In 2016, the U.S. men went a calendar year without a World Cup win in any discipline for the first time since 1999. (Travis Ganong broke that skid in January, but on the same day that three-time Olympian Steven Nyman suffered a season-ending crash.)

Olympic giant slalom champion Ted Ligety hasn’t won in two years, his last two seasons cut short by myriad injuries.

The next three months will be key. Ligety will try to re-establish himself as Mr. GS, beginning Sunday in Soelden.

Nyman, the top American downhiller since Sochi, suffered a complete tear to his MCL and PCL and a partial tear to his ACL on Jan. 27. At 35, he’s not much older than the top European speed racers. It’s not out of the question that, once he returns to the World Cup circuit, he can join the Olympic medal conversation.

Ganong, 29, went more than one year between top-five finishes on the World Cup before winning that downhill on Jan. 27.

He has excelled enough on the big stage — fifth in his Olympic debut in the Sochi downhill and downhill silver at the 2015 Worlds — to contend in PyeongChang even if he doesn’t impress in the lead-up races.

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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