Mikaela Shiffrin

Alpine skiing women’s World Cup preview

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The women’s Alpine skiing landscape changed plenty since the Sochi Olympics, creating intrigue going into this season, which begins with the traditional opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Saturday.

Five storylines to watch as the campaign unfolds:

1. Mikaela Shiffrin adds speed

Shiffrin became the youngest Olympic slalom champion ever in Sochi, taking gold at age 18. She then won the final two World Cup slaloms of the season in March, clinching a second straight season title in her trademark event.

This year, she will be on overwhelming favorite to bag her third straight World Cup slalom crystal globe (a feat no woman has done since Swiss great Vreni Schneider won four straight from 1992 to 1995).

But Shiffrin’s goals expand to the giant slalom, where she has risen from 49th to 19th to seventh in the World Cup standings the last three seasons. She made her first giant slalom podiums last season. This year, she’d like to win her first giant slalom race, perhaps in Soelden on Saturday.

Shiffrin’s giant slalom results will go into determining if and when she makes her World Cup debut in the super-G, which she would like to do before the World Championships in Colorado in February.

Shiffrin, who was fifth and sixth in the overall World Cup standings the last two years, could begin her blossom into a threat to the world’s top all-around skiers this season.

2. Lindsey Vonn’s return

The last time ski fans saw the 2010 Olympic downhill champion race, she couldn’t finish a downhill in Val d’Isere, France, on Dec. 21. Two weeks later, Vonn gave up her bid to return to the Olympics from major right knee surgery.

Now, the four-time World Cup overall champion is targeting a return at the first speed races of the season in Lake Louise, Alberta, the first weekend of December. It’s the same setting where she debuted last season following her February 2013 World Championships crash and November 2013 training setback.

Vonn likely won’t be a contender for the overall title this season, since she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to race giant slalom, let alone if she ever does slalom again.

Her goal instead is to close the gap on retired Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell‘s record for World Cup victories (62). Vonn has 59 wins.

3. Anna Fenninger, the returning champion

Shiffrin, Vonn, Maria Hoefl-Riesch and Tina Maze garnered most of the headlines the last few years, but it’s the Austrian Fenninger who was the world’s best skier last season.

Fenninger, 25, won the Sochi Olympic super-G and took silver in the giant slalom. She came back from the Winter Games to finish first or second in five of the final eight races of the season, surpassing Hoefl-Riesch for the World Cup overall title.

Fenninger became the youngest World Cup overall champion since Vonn in 2009 and the first woman from Austria to claim the title since Nicole Hosp in 2007. Austria is the most successful nation in Olympic Alpine history and also home to the world’s best male skier, Marcel Hirscher.

Fenninger excels in the downhill, super-G and giant slalom. She’ll be in the way of Vonn in the former two events and Shiffrin in the latter. Given her age, there’s reason to believe she hasn’t peaked yet. Her closest competitor last season, Hoefl-Riesch, has retired.

4. Tina Maze’s final season?

Maze, a four-time Olympic medalist, said that Sochi marked her final Winter Games. The Slovenian will also take a break after this season to assess her future. She is 31, one year older than Vonn and two years older than Hoefl-Riesch.

Maze had arguably the greatest World Cup season ever in 2012-13 with a record 2,414 points (more than twice as many as second-place Hoefl-Riesch). She was first or second in all five disciplines.

She was not the same skier for most of 2013-14, needing three months and a coaching change before winning her first race Jan. 25. Maze flipped the switch in February, becoming the only Alpine skier to win two gold medals in Sochi, but didn’t win any more races the rest of the World Cup season.

At her best, Maze is Shiffrin’s biggest threat in the slalom, the world’s best in the giant slalom and a podium favorite in the super-G and downhill. But it’s anyone’s guess what kind of form to expect as Soelden approaches.

5. Best of the rest

Julia Mancuso‘s bronze medal in the Sochi super combined was shocking because she didn’t finisher higher than seventh in any World Cup race that season.

Mancuso, 30, owns nine Olympic or World Championships medals, but she hasn’t won a World Cup race since Feb. 21, 2012, and has never won a World Cup season title in any discipline. Will she build on that Olympic bronze, or should we expect to see results more in line with last year’s World Cup?

More should be expected of Swiss Lara Gut and Liechtenstein’s Tina Weirather, who were third and fifth in the overall standings last season.

Gut, 23, won three of the first four races last season, including Soelden, and two of the last four at the World Cup finals. She went into a midseason lull, though, and managed the same Olympic medal output as Mancuso — a single bronze.

Weirather, 25, excelled during the midseason in December and January. She looked like a multiple medal threat in Sochi until crashing in training one day before her first race, wiping her out of the Winter Games and the rest of the World Cup campaign.

Russian Olympic bobsled champ Aleksander Zubkov retires

Tommy Ford ends U.S. men’s World Cup drought at Beaver Creek

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Tommy Ford earned his first World Cup win at age 30 and ended the U.S. men’s longest victory and podium droughts in two decades.

Ford won the giant slalom in Beaver Creek, Colo., on Sunday, the last North American race on tour this season. He prevailed by eight tenths of a second combining times over two runs.

“It doesn’t beat doing it here. I’ve been working hard,” Ford, in his 86th World Cup start dating to 2009, said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “No secret, just kept it simple and really trusted what I was doing.”

Norwegians Henrik Kristoffersen and Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen were second and third. American Ted Ligety, fourth after the opening run, finished 11th.

Full results are here.

Ford became the first U.S. man to win a World Cup since Travis Ganong took a downhill on Jan. 27, 2017. He also became the first U.S. male podium finisher since Ligety in January 2018. Both were the longest droughts for the program since the late 1990s.

Ford, a 2010 and 2018 Olympian who missed the 2014 Olympics due to a broken femur, had been working toward this moment.

He finished a World Cup career-high fourth at the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Oct. 27. Last season, the Oregon native and former Dartmouth student had a pair of fifths.

The men’s World Cup moves to Val d’Isere, France, next weekend for a giant slalom and slalom.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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