Julia Mancuso improves but U.S. women lag behind favorites in Altenmarkt downhill (video)

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The women wearing the label of Olympic medal favorites definitely looked the part.

A challenge to that supremacy from the Americans is looking less like a sure thing.

Austria’s Elisabeth Goergl and Anna Fenninger thrilled the opening crowd with a 1-2 finish ahead of overall points leader Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany and rising star Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein in the fifth downhill race of the World Cup season Saturday in Altenmarkt, Austria.

Meanwhile, the struggles continued for the U.S. women on the whole as they failed once again to reach the podium as the clock ticked to 27 days until the start of the Winter Olympics. There was a bright spot however, as Julia Mancuso put down some of her best skiing of the season and finished 13th.

The American women came into the season as the top-ranked speed unit in the world but have collectively looked lost throughout the first half of the World Cup and have fallen well short of lofty expectations.

Six U.S. women reached a World Cup podium in at least one speed event last season. None have done so this season, and two, Lindsey Vonn and Alice McKennis, are now out of Olympic consideration with knee and leg injuries.

The closest anyone has come to a podium was on Dec. 8 when Leanne Smith finished sixth in the super-G at Lake Louise on Dec. 8. Stacey Cook’s best result is a 12th-place finish in the downhill in Lake Louise on Dec. 7. Mancuso’s best effort in a speed event was her 17th-place finish in the super-G at Lake. Since the opening race of the season, the Beaver Creek downhill on Nov. 29, Laurenne Ross hadn’t finished inside the Top 22.

At the outset, it didn’t appear like things were going to be any better here. Smith and Cook, the first two Americans out of the gate, brought little speed off the steep opening pitch, scrubbed time on the first right hand turn, got no air off the hot-air jump and carried little speed into the gliding flat sections. Cook finished 21st and Smith finished tied for 24th.

That brought up Mancuso, who might have seemed least likely to have a solid performance, especially after she spent Friday in the hospital tending to her younger sister Sara, who was injured powder skiing in Altenmarkt.

But Mancuso lived up to her reputation as a big-race performer and she raised her game. Showing no ill effects or distractions from her family ordeal, she flew through the top third and took speed into the technical mid-section. That enabled her to attack the critical lower half and cross with her best finish of the season.

“It was a good run,” Mancuso told AP. “You can’t expect to change everything in one run. Now I really believe I can win a race. I feel a lot better on my equipment. I skied positive the whole run and was trying to be confident.”

Ross skied the super-G-like turns cleanly but the rest of her run was less-than aggressive. In paying the course such respect, she sacrificed time, finishing 22nd, which equaled her season’s best.

For those looking for more-drastic improvement from the U.S. and not just baby steps, the reasons this performance could be taken as disheartening are two-fold. Firstly, there are only two downhill and two super-G races left until the U.S. Olympic team is selected on Jan. 26 and to quote Yogi Berra, “It gets late early out there.”

Secondly, today’s Kalberloch represented perhaps the closest replica to the Rosa Khutor Olympic course in Sochi that women will ski on the World Cup. It opened with a full 37-degree plunge out of the start, which gets skiers up over 70 miles per hour in four seconds, and featured big jumps and huge technical turns.

In places where the Americans had difficulties, their international counterparts thrived.

Goergl, the Vancouver downhill bronze medalist, was seen by Austrian media as being in danger of not being selected for the Sochi team. She erased those doubts in spectacular fashion today. While she wasn’t clean at the top, she had beautiful turns through the shaded forest section and attacked the key lower half to take a victory which guarantees her Olympic selection by FIS criteria.

“I know I had a super run. That gives me satisfaction,” Goergl told AP. “I am glad that I had a smooth run. Winning isn’t the most important to me. What really counts is skiing well. I wasn’t able to show that last year.”

Fenninger, who had the fastest time in Thursday’s lone training run, faced near disaster on the upper level when she hit a bump that nearly dumped her on her inside shoulder. But she recovered quickly, opened a half-second lead at the midway point and attacked the late turns en route to a lead she would later relinquish to Goergl.

The story was similar for Hoefl-Riesch, who didn’t panic after making a couple mistakes in the early turns and continued to attack. She carried enough speed off the top to glide through the flats, making up time along the way. She nailed those final technical turns in the Panorama section and rocketed into the lead.

Weirather skied the first two thirds of the course even better than Hoefl-Riesch. She had the green light through the first three time intervals but took a bad line into the final long left-footed turn and lost all of her advantage, crossing .28 behind the German.

With the runner-up finish, Fenninger picked up 80 points to take the lead in the World Cup overall standings with 677 points, six more than Hoefl-Riesch and 18 more than Weirather. Hoefl-Riesch continues to lead the downhill standings with 325 points.

Racing will continue here on Sunday with the first super-combined competition of the season.

Altenmarkt-Zauchensee Women’s Downhill

1-Elisabeth Goergl (AUT) 1:47.45

2-Anna Fenninger (AUT) 1:48.01

3-Maria Hoefl-Riesch (GER) 1:48.08

4-Tina Weirather (LIE) 1:48.36

5-Nicole Hosp (AUT) 1:48.47

6-Larisa Yurkiw (CAN) 1:48.58

7-Carolina Ruiz Castillo (ESP) 1:48.59

8-Marianne Kaurmann-Abderhalden (SUI) 1:48.62

9-Lotte Smiseth Sejersted (NOR) 1:48.72

10-Regina Sterz (AUT) 1:48.73

13-Julia Mancuso (USA) 1:48.84

22-Stacey Cook (USA) 1:49.92

23-Laurenne Ross (USA) 1:49.93

T25-Leanne Smith (USA) 1:50.06

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Iran banned from judo for instructing athlete to withdraw rather than face Israel opponent

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Iran has been banned from international judo for instructing one of its athletes to withdraw from August’s world championships rather than face an Israeli judoka.

The International Judo Federation said Iran authorities instructing Saeid Mollaei to withdraw rather than face Israeli judoka Sagi Muki was “a serious breach and gross violation” of its code of ethics and the Olympic Charter.

IJF spokesman Vlad Marinescu said any ban won’t apply to the Tokyo Olympics. That’s because it’s the Iranian Olympic Committee, not the Iranian Judo Federation, which formally enters the Olympic team.

“We have been informed by IJF that they will launch a proper procedure giving all concerned parties the right to be heard,” an International Olympic Committee spokesperson said. “Should the issue become an Olympic issue we will take the result of this procedure into consideration.”

An IJF disciplinary commission said it “has a strong reason to believe that the Iran Judo Federation will continue or repeatedly engage in misconduct” given its history of similar actions with its athletes potentially facing Israelis.

Mollaei, a 2018 World champion, said he was afraid to return to Iran after disobeying those orders at worlds. He competed anyway but lost one round before a potential final with Muki.

“I want to compete wherever I can,” Mollaei said in a statement from the IJF. “I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice, all athletes must comply with it. All I did today was for my life, for a new life.

“I need help. Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid.”

The IJF said it would help Mollaei prepare for next year’s Olympics, also in Tokyo. If Iran refuses to enter him, one option could be the International Olympic Committee-backed team of refugee athletes.

Iranian sports teams have for several decades had a policy of not competing against Israelis, which the country does not recognize. The IJF has said Iranians have thrown matches and used “questionable injuries” to avoid competing against Israelis.

Mollaei’s case came four months after judo officials hailed a breakthrough in relations with Iran, publishing a letter signed by Salehi Amiri pledging to “fully respect the Olympic charter and its non-discrimination principle.”

Back in August, Iranian Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar accused the IJF of trying to “create problems” with Mollaei, the IRNA news agency reported. He said Iran will send a protest letter to the IOC.

Iranian team manager Majid Zareian also criticized the IJF, saying “everything was set in advance to put Mollaei against a participant from (Israel).”

“They did not allow me to be present next to my athlete in exercise salon,” Zareian said. “After the competitions they changed hotel of Mollaei without my permission, against the regulations.”

He denied reports Iranian authorities had put pressure on Mollaei.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MORE: Israel, judo federation hail letter from Iran; Tehran silent

Jacarra Winchester, after foe bites her, wins first wrestling world title

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Jacarra Winchester missed the Rio Olympic wrestling trials after tearing her knee playing soccer. She missed a medal at the 2018 World Championships after a semifinal-winning takedown was reversed.

There was no denying her on Wednesday.

Winchester, who picked up wrestling a decade ago as a high school junior, became the first American to earn a medal at the worlds in Kazakhstan this week. And it was gold.

She came back to beat Japanese Nanami Irie 5-3 in the final of the 55kg division, a weight class that is not on the Olympic program. Winchester must move to 53kg or 57kg next year.

But for now she can celebrate quite a journey. At 26, she’s one of the older wrestlers to become a first-time world champion. She believed she had what it took last year, when a reversed call kept her from the final and she subsequently lost a bronze-medal match.

Winchester, who has problems sleeping, said she replayed the end of that semifinal in her head ever since.

“There’s no reason why I should have gotten beat,” she said Wednesday. “Clearly I have what I need on the mat. I just need to change my mindset. … Just knowing you’re the best, pushing yourself and not letting anything get to me.”

That helped in Tuesday’s semifinals, where Winchester said her Turkish opponent bit her, pulled her hair and twisted her fingers. Winchester, who grew up in the Oakland, Calif., area, said that when she started wrestling she had no Olympic goals.

“I had a mindset of I’m not a quitter,” she said.

Earlier Wednesday, Adeline Gray reached Thursday’s 76kg final, where she will try to become the first American to earn five world titles.

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