Thank your stars and stripes for freestyle skiing

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The International Olympic Committee made a landmark decision three years ago when it added women’s ski jumping to the Winter Olympic sports program.

It’s easy to forget that in that same announcement, the IOC postponed a decision on adding men’s and women’s ski and snowboard slopestyle for the Sochi Olympics. An IOC sport director said slopestyle needed “further feasibility study.” Proponents had to wait nearly three more months before the IOC finally green lighted slopestyle as the final sport for the 2014 Winter Games.

Thank your stars and stripes that it did.

The final slopestyle event of the Sochi Olympics concluded Thursday with the third U.S. sweep of any event in Winter Olympic history.

Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper bagged the medals. The U.S. jumped to 12 medals overall, including four golds. Half of those medals belong to slopestyle skiers and snowboarders, including three of the four golds.

VIDEO: See how U.S. dominated event

“It’s one thing to be out here and get on the podium with Gus and Joss, but it’s another thing to think about the big picture and think about the advance in medals that we’ve gotten for the U.S.,” said the bronze medalist Goepper, who was bidding to become the first individual Winter Olympic champion born in Indiana.

There was some concern over the U.S.’ performance in the first five days of the Olympics. It sat in fourth place overall with nine medals going into Thursday.

In 2010, the U.S. won 37 medals over 16 days at the Vancouver Games, the greatest overall medal haul in Winter Olympic history. Of course, the Vancouver Olympics featured more events than any Winter Olympics ever (as does Sochi), so it didn’t come as a huge shock.

To compare the U.S.’ performance in Sochi to only Vancouver would be short-sighted. The U.S. and Canada (the gold-medal leader in Vancouver) had an advantage over European powers Germany, Norway and Russia being closer to home.

MORE: Twitter reacts to the Team USA sweep

A fairer way to compare the U.S.’ early performance in Sochi would be to put it against other recent non-North American Olympics. So let’s do that.

  • The U.S. won nine out of 96 medals in the first five days of the Sochi Olympics. That’s 9.3 percent.
  • In 2006, the U.S. won 25 out of 252 total medals at the Torino Olympics. That’s 9.9 percent.
  • In 1998, the U.S. won 13 out of 204 total medals at the Nagano Olympics. That’s 6.4 percent.
  • In 1994, the U.S. won 13 out of 183 total medals at the Lillehammer Olympics. That’s 7.1 percent.

The U.S. was right within its range of non-North American Olympics after five days in Sochi. There shouldn’t have been alarm.

On the flip side, the U.S. would plunge down the medal table if these were the 1994 Sochi Olympics. In addition to the six slopestyle medals, the U.S. had won three others in events that weren’t part of the Olympic program 20 years ago.

The remaining three were all bronze medals – Erin Hamlin (luge), Hannah Kearney (moguls) and Julia Mancuso (super combined). (Note: moguls didn’t join the Olympics until 1992, and super combined was adapted from the combined in 2010).

MORE: Kenworthy to adopt stray dogs

Veteran medal threats in traditional Olympic sports have faltered, from speed skater Shani Davis (eighth in the 1000m) to Alpine skier Bode Miller (eighth in the downhill) to cross-country skier Kikkan Randall (eliminated in the quarterfinals of the individual sprint).

Yet the new kids, rookie Olympians, have been surprisingly spectacular.

Gold medalists Sage Kotsenburg, Kaitlyn Farrington and Christensen needed until the final weekend of Olympic selection events to earn their spots on the U.S. Olympic Team in January.

VIDEO: The science behind Christensen’s golden run

None were considered the top U.S. medal threats in their events.

Yet Kotsenburg won the first U.S. medal in Sochi in snowboard slopestyle on Saturday, an event best known as the one Shaun White skipped.

Farrington soared above Olympic champions Kelly Clark and Hannah Teter and world champion Arielle Gold to win snowboard halfpipe gold Wednesday.

Then came Christensen, the biggest nail-biter of them all in Olympic qualification last month. Christensen won the final Olympic selection event in his hometown of Park City, Utah, after being unable to ski for two weeks because he cut open his knee.

Even that victory wasn’t enough to clinch the final Team USA spot, though.

U.S. officials had to choose from among Christensen and the last two world champions in ski slopestyle – Alex Schlopy and Tom Wallisch.

They went with the hot hand in Christensen, whose form reached a boiling point under warm, sunny skies this week.

Christensen posted the top qualifying score in the morning Thursday and the best first run in the afternoon final. He had clinched gold before his final run, which became a victory lap that would have won gold as well.

“The stars lined up for me,” Christensen said.

And for the U.S., which jumped from fourth to second in medals, one behind Norway.

“We were kind of falling behind in the medal count,” Christensen said. “Hopefully that can bring us up a few and the U.S. can keep dominating.”

The slopestyle athletes will have no say in that. Their fruitful Olympics are over, but their impact won’t be forgotten.

Mondo Duplantis, Sandi Morris miss attempts at pole vault records

Mondo Duplantis
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Sweden’s Mondo Duplantis and U.S. athlete Sandi Morris took turns attempting world records in the pole vault Wednesday at the Meeting d’Athlétsime Hauts-de-France Pas-de-Calais meet at Arena Stade Regional in Liévin, France, but both were unable to clear the bar.

Duplantis, aiming to set the world record for third time in February, had no misses leading up to his record attempts. U.S. vaulter Sam Kendricks, who has won the last two world championships, cleared 5.90m but dropped out after one attempt at 5.95m. Duplantis passed on that height, then cleared 6.07m to warm up for his shot at 6.19m, just shy of 20 feet, 3 3/4 inches.

Morris’ attempt to tie Jennifer Suhr‘s world indoor record of 5.03m from 2016 was more of a surprise. Morris holds the U.S. outdoor record at 5.00m but had never done better than 4.95m indoors. She won Wednesday’s competition with a clearance of 4.83m and asked to go immediately to 5.03m, or 16 feet, 6 inches.

Yelena Isinbayeva still holds the outdoor record of 5.06m, set in 2009. Morris is second on the all-time list and is the only athlete other than Isinbayeva or Suhr to clear 5 meters either indoors or outdoors.

In the men’s pole vault, Duplantis’ clearance of 6.18m Feb. 15 in Glasgow is the best vault indoors or outdoors.  Sergey Bubka still has the highest clearance outdoors at 6.14m. Bubka also held the indoor record of 6.15m for more than 20 years, finally losing it to Renaud Lavillenie in 2014. Duplantis cleared 6.17m Feb. 9 in Poland, then added another centimeter last week in Glasgow.

READ: Duplantis raises record in Glasgow

Duplantis, Lavillenie and Bubka are the only vaulters to clear 20 feet. Kendricks cleared 6.06m, or 19-10 1/2, last summer, the highest outdoor clearance by anyone other than Bubka.

Duplantis grew up in Louisiana and attended LSU for one year, setting the NCAA indoor (5.92m) and outdoor (6.00m) before turning pro, though he was upset in the NCAA final by South Dakota junior Chris Nilsen.

Also at Wednesday’s meet:

Ronnie Baker ran 6.49 seconds in the 60m semifinals and lowered that to 6.44 in the final, second only to Christian Coleman this season. Demek Kemp finished second and tied his personal best of 6.50.

Nia Ali and Christina Clemons finished 1-2 in the women’s 60m hurdles with identical times of 7.92. Ali is the reigning world champion and Olympic silver medalist in the 100m hurdles. She also won world indoor titles in 2014 and 2016.

Two Ethiopian runners set the fastest times of the season Samuel Tefera in the 1,500m (3:35.54) and Getnet Wale in the 3,000m (7:32.80). Wale was fourth in the 3,000m steeplechase in the 2019 world championships.

Pascal Martinot-Lagarde, racing in his home country of France, won the 60m hurdles in 7.47, second this season to Grant Holloway‘s 7.38 last week.

The World Athletics Indoor Tour ends Friday in Madrid. The world indoor championships originally scheduled for March in Nanjing, China, have been postponed a year due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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Susan Dunklee extends decade of surprises for U.S. biathletes

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When Susan Dunklee‘s time held up for second place in Friday’s 7.5km sprint, she became the first U.S. biathlete to win two world championship medals in her career and earned the sixth medal for the U.S. in world biathlon championship history.

Four of those medals have come in the past eight years.

First was Tim Burke, who had gained some fame among biathlon fans with his three World Cup podiums in the 2009-10 season and his relationship with German biathlete Andrea Henkel, who would win two Olympic gold medals and eight world championships before retiring and marrying Burke.

In that season, Burke led the World Cup briefly but faded and didn’t do well in the Olympics. But in 2012-13, he finished 10th in the World Cup overall and ended the American drought in the world championships, finishing second in the individual behind dominant French biathlete Martin Fourcade, who won his 11th non-relay world title Wednesday in the individual.

In 2017, Dunklee became the first U.S. woman to win a non-relay medal, taking the lead in the mass start after quickly knocking down all five targets in the last shooting and holding on for second. She didn’t come out of nowhere, having taken a few World Cup medals. That season, she ranked 10th overall in the World Cup.

Then came the stunner. Lowell Bailey, who had just one World Cup podium in a long career coming into the 2016-17 season, had bib 100 in the individual, a spot usually reserved for non-contenders. But he hit all 20 targets, always important in a race that penalizes athletes one minute per miss, and gutted it out through the last lap to keep a 3.3-second advantage and win the first world championship for a U.S. biathlete.

Like Dunklee, Bailey earned his medal in the midst of a strong season. The individual was won of his four top-10 finishes in the world championships, including a fourth-place finish in the sprint. He wound up eighth overall in the World Cup.

Bailey and Burke each stuck it out to compete in their fourth Olympics in 2018, then crossed the finish line together in their final race at the U.S. championships.

This season is their first in management. Bailey, also a bluegrass musician, is now U.S. Biathlon’s director of high performance. Burke is director of athlete development.

Dunklee, on the other hand, isn’t done. Her results slipped a bit after her 2017 breakthrough, but she has had some top 10s. When she shoots clean, as she did Friday, she’s a contender.

The first U.S. medal was in the first women’s world championship in 1984, when Holly Beatie, Julie Newman and Kari Swenson bronze in 3x5km relay. Swenson also finished fifth in the individual that year and returned to compete in the next two world championships after a harrowing experience in which she was abducted and shot, a story that inspired a film starring Tracy Pollan.

The only other U.S. medal in the world championships before Burke, Bailey and Dunklee was Josh Thompson‘s individual silver in 1987. The only athletes other than Burke, Bailey, Dunklee and Thompson to have World Cup podiums (excluding relays) are Jeremy Teela in 2009 and Clare Egan, who was third in a mass start last spring and is competing in the world championships this year.

U.S. Paralympians broke through with two gold medals on the first day of competition in the 2018 Paralympics.

READ: Kendall Gretsch, Dan Cnossen take gold

Wednesday saw another surprise finish for a U.S. biathlete. Leif Nordgren, whose career-best finish outside the relays is 16th, was the only athlete to go 20-for-20 on the shooting range and placed eighth in the individual.

The championships continue through through Sunday with the single mixed relay on Thursday, the men’s and women’s relays on Saturday, and the men’s and women’s mass starts on Sunday.

WATCH: World biathlon championships TV schedule

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