Hirscher storms back to win World Cup GS, Ligety takes 7th (video)

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) — Lounging on the couch with his broken left ankle in a cast, Marcel Hirscher felt something he hadn’t in a long time — no pressure.

Now that he’s back on the slopes with his ankle mended and returning to his winning ways, that familiar tension has returned.

The six-time overall World Cup champion can’t escape the one glaring omission from his impressive resume: an Olympic gold.

He insisted he doesn’t give it a second thought heading to PyeongChang. Still, all eyes will be on him constantly between now and February.

Especially after a performance like Sunday’s. The Austrian standout stormed back from a first-run deficit to win a World Cup giant slalom race on an afternoon when rival Ted Ligety struggled.

Hirscher finished in a combined time of 2 minutes, 37.30 seconds to show he’s getting back up to speed after breaking his ankle in a training accident in August. Henrik Kristoffersen of Norway was second, 0.88 seconds back, and first-run leader Stefan Luitz of Germany took third.

“Today I thought: ‘OK, let’s go for it. Let’s give it a try. Let’s see what’s possible,’” Hirscher said. “So unexpected was never a win before.”

Sitting next to him, Kristoffersen couldn’t help but chime in.

“I’m not surprised,” Kristoffersen said.

“Come on, Henrik,” Hirscher responded.

It was Hirscher’s 23rd World Cup giant slalom win, which ties him for third most among men with Switzerland’s Michael von Gruenigen. That leaves him trailing only Ingemar Stenmark (46) and Ligety (24) in the discipline.

“Marcel’s a great athlete,” Kristoffersen said. “He’s making sure that everything is lined up as good as possible for himself. That’s one of the reasons he has won six overall globes in a row. Of course, he’s mentally strong.”

These days, he’s getting physically strong, too. He hardly feels any discomfort in that ankle, especially on race day.

“If you’re so pumped, with this high adrenaline, it doesn’t hurt,” said Hirscher, who was 17th in a slalom in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 12. “It is completely free of pain. I didn’t think about it. Maybe during training sometimes I think about it or feel a little pain. But it is not worth talking about it.”

Hirscher’s not the only top GS racer on the mend. Ligety showed signs of returning to form following surgery to fix herniated disks in January. He was second after the first pass through the course, but he made several small mistakes on his final run to slip to seventh.

“I’m happy with how I’ve been skiing and how my body feels. That’s good,” Ligety said. “But Beaver Creek has been a really good hill for me. I expected a lot more.”

As a whole, the Americans turned in a lackluster performance on their home course. In three races, the top finish was by Ligety. Tommy Ford had a career-best 10th-place World Cup finish Sunday.

“That was much better skiing,” Ford said. “It was cool to do some good arcs.”

Starting third-to-last in the final run, Hirscher powered his way down the course to knock Kristoffersen from the top spot. Ligety couldn’t catch him and neither could Luitz, who picked up his fifth World Cup podium finish.

Luitz was impressed with Hirscher.

“He’s unbelievable. He was injured and trained like two weeks, maybe less, and just amazing how he came back,” Luitz said. “He’s the best skier in the world.”

Hence, the pressure that only figures to escalate as the Olympics near.

“The first day I was able to walk without the cast and no crutches, the pressure began to pop up again,” Hirscher said. “But especially after today, it is completely the same (pressure).

“The last month was really hard. Just skiing, skiing, skiing, as many runs as possible, trying to gain the speed. … I improved myself through every turn.”

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New generation of male figure skaters owns spotlight at worlds; preview

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Nobody in the men’s field at figure skating worlds owns an Olympic or world title for the first time since 1985. This could lead to the best U.S. men’s results in years.

Yuzuru HanyuJavier Fernandez and Patrick Chan combined to win every gold medal since 2011, but all of them ended their seasons at the Olympics.

This week in Milan, the four leading men, who just competed in their first Olympics, are all 20 years or younger. And that includes two Americans.

Nathan Chen can become the first world singles champion from the U.S. since Evan Lysacek in 2009. Chen and Vincent Zhou could be the first U.S. men to finish in the top five together since Lysacek and Johnny Weir in 2005. Chen, Zhou and Max Aaron could make up the best U.S. trio at a worlds in more than 20 years.

Start with Chen. The 18-year-old said he planned to compete this week regardless of what happened at the Olympics, but after his struggles in the team event and individual short programs, the quad master nailed his free skate, came home to California and said he took maybe one day off of training before this event.

Chen is one of three men in the gold-medal hunt, along with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan and world bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China. While Chen largely struggled at the 2017 Worlds and in PyeongChang, Uno and Jin each made the podium at both events. And each can come close to or equal Chen in quad numbers.

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Zhou, 17, has a chance to become the youngest man to earn a world medal since Hanyu in 2012. Or the first man to win the world junior title one season and make the world senior podium the next since Yevgeny Plushenko in 1997-98.

Zhou is riding momentum. He struggled in the fall and entered nationals in January ranked fifth among Americans for the season. He placed third to make the Olympic team and then landed three clean quads in his Olympic free skate to jump from 12th to sixth.

“I did better there than a lot of people thought I would,” Zhou told NBC Sports research last week. “I knew I was capable of that all season.

“I want to reach my ultimate goal of being Olympic champion, and my best chance is in 2022 … because by 2026 I will probably be old and creaky with four prosthetic limbs.”

Aaron made it to Milan after Olympian Adam Rippon gave up his spot, and the top two alternates (Jason Brown and Ross Miner) both declined. Still, Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, is seeded seventh in the men’s field based on top scores this season.

NBC Sports figure skating researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

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Carolina Kostner the sentimental favorite at figure skating worlds

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova is without question the favorite at this week’s world figure skating championships, especially after the sprightly Russian’s training partner and rival Yevgenia Medvedeva withdrew because of injury.

She won’t be the sentimental favorite, though.

That would be Carolina Kostner, the ageless Italian star who could be competing at worlds for the last time on home soil. The 2012 champion and six-time world medalist seemed to indicate that retirement could be looming after she finished fifth at the PyeongChang Games, where she was chosen to carry the Italian flag at the Closing Ceremony.

Kostner will have a huge home crowd behind her when the event begins Wednesday in Milan.

“Decisions like that should never be taken in a hot moment. It will come naturally,” said Kostner, who no longer can compete with the sport’s high-fliers when it comes to technical marks, but whose elegant artistry and presentation often make up the difference.

“She is an example of perseverance, of a long-lasting athlete,” Medvedeva said. “I have trouble imagining how someone can stay in that shape for a very long time. When you see people like Carolina, you understand that if she can do something, then that something is possible. If you love what you do, you put all of yourself into it, like Carolina Kostner.”

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When asked about retirement, Kostner brought up her cousin, Isolde Kostner, who won three Olympic Alpine skiing medals before deciding to step away from competition.

“She stopped skiing shortly before the (2006) Olympics in Italy,” Caroline Kostner said. “Many did not understand why she wouldn’t pull through because it was her home country, and she said, ‘You will feel strongly when it is time to stop.’ And I haven’t felt it yet.”

The biggest story at the world championships in an Olympic year tends to be who is missing rather than who shows up. The grind of competing for an entire season builds toward the quadrennial event, and athletes who medal or intend to retire rarely press on to worlds. Then there are the injuries, which accumulate during the year.

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