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.

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Chad le Clos seeks Sun Yang’s Olympic gold medal for doping case

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NAPLES, Italy (AP) — Chad le Clos believes he has a claim on Sun Yang’s gold medal from the Rio Olympics, with a verdict imminent on the Chinese swimmer’s latest doping case.

“He should be banned. It’s as simple as that,” Le Clos said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. “Anyone who tests positive should be banned. I should get my gold medal back from Rio.

“Not for the moment. I lost that. I don’t really care about that,” Le Clos added on Wednesday. “It’s just for my record. If I break my leg and I can’t swim again I want my record to say, ‘Two individual golds, two individual silvers.’ Because that’s what it should be.”

Le Clos’ Olympic record currently contains one gold medal and three silvers — including a second-place finish to Sun in the Rio Olympic 200m free

Odds are, though, that Sun won’t lose any Olympic titles when the Court of Arbitration for Sport issues its ruling over his alleged refusal to provide blood and urine in September 2018 in a visit by sample collectors to his home in China. During the late-night confrontation, a security guard used a hammer to smash a container holding Sun’s blood as the swimmer lit the scene with his mobile phone.

The World Anti-Doping Agency appealed after swimming federation FINA merely warned Sun and cited doubts about credentials shown by three sample collection officials.

A three-time Olympic champion, Sun could be banished from the sport for up to eight years but any ban likely won’t be backdated before September 2018 — meaning all of his Olympic medals seem safe.

But there’s also the fact that international swimming authorities worked to protect Sun from being banned, according to a Swiss supreme court document.

FINA has faced criticisms in the past for favoring Sun during his career. It did not announce Sun’s three-month ban for doping imposed by Chinese authorities until after it ended in 2014.

“I just hope the system and whatever we have is really accurate,” said Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszú, who won three golds in Rio. “I just hope the decisions they are making is fair and is for the sport and not for other reasons.”

The medals that Sun risks losing most are the two golds that he won at last year’s world championships in the 200m and 400m frees. At the event in Gwangju, South Korea, fellow medalists Mack Horton of Australia and Duncan Scott of Britain refused to stand with him on the podium.

Sun has denied any wrongdoing. Any ban imposed in the coming days would likely prevent him from competing at this year’s Tokyo Olympics.

“I have nothing against anybody. It’s not personal,” Le Clos said. “It’s just how the world should be. If you cheat or if you do something wrong, like if you false start, you get disqualified. It’s simple as that.”

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U.S. Olympic luger Emily Sweeney looks forward from depression bout

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Luge’s World Cup campaign ends this weekend in Germany, where most of the best 100 sliders in the sport will be looking to close their international seasons on a high note.

Emily Sweeney won’t be among them.

Her season ended a couple weeks ago, on her terms.

The U.S. veteran is officially two years into her recovery from a crash at the PyeongChang Olympics that she walked away from — even with a broken neck and broken back — and two years away, she hopes, from being a medal contender at the Beijing Games.

She decided to listen to her body and step away from the frantic end of the season, heading home instead to meet her sister’s new baby and formulate a plan for her offseason.

Here’s what she has learned: Fractures heal, but everything else takes time. So while her body still betrays her from time to time on the track, an additional focus on the mental game is what Sweeney hopes will get her to the medal podium in Beijing in 2022.

“I am very comfortable about thinking about my weaknesses because I failed so much early on,” Sweeney said. “I didn’t make two Olympic teams right in a row. I constantly had to look at myself and say ‘What’s wrong? What am I not like?’ I had to be creative with my training and with the whole process. And so, I think I’m pretty comfortable with challenges.”

That’s why, this season, when she felt like her body couldn’t do it anymore she simply went home. The decision was not easy: Her team is still competing, she has plenty of friends on the circuit and her longtime boyfriend — Italian star Dominik Fischnaller — is a serious contender to win the men’s World Cup overall title.

But a setback right now could throw a serious wrench into her Olympic plans. The problem was pressure, not in the sense of what’s comes with the prospects of winning or losing in competition, but the massive gravitational force that sliders feel and fight through when they are on the ice at speeds often topping 80mph. It takes tremendous strength, and Sweeney’s neck still isn’t always up to the challenge. So, with wear and tear of the season taking a toll, she headed home.

“It’s not a question of if I’m good enough,” said Sweeney, who won a medal at last season’s world championships — cementing her status as one of the fastest women on ice. “I see it in my splits. I would have first-place splits, then get to the pressure and I ended up 15th. I just couldn’t keep going through this cycle of pushing it, pushing it, pushing it and then losing all my speed as soon as I can’t hold my head up anymore.”

So she’s working on her body and her mind.

Sweeney is one of the most-upbeat sliders on the luge circuit; always smiling, always happy, and most of the time her good mood is genuine. After the crash, however, the good mood wasn’t always there, and it took Sweeney some time to realize that there was more wrong than just the fractures in her neck and back.

“I went into a depression,” Sweeney said. “It’s weird saying that. But it feels foreign to me to say I broke my neck and my back two years ago. And it feels dramatic to say, which I guess I need to just get more comfortable with that. But I think that just the way I was raised was like, ‘All right, brush it off and move on.’ And that’s why I think I appear a lot of times like it’s just sunshine and rainbows, but this one forced me to stop. But you have to. And the alternative is to stay at that low and that just becomes miserable.”

From therapy came a plan: Do one thing a day to feel better toward the ultimate goal of medaling in 2022.

Most days, she succeeds. When Sweeney is right, especially in sprint events, few women in the world have a chance of catching her. Her sliding career is peaking. Her mental game, she thinks, is catching up.

And now she’s got two years to put the whole package together.

“Being an Olympian was my dream since I was 7 years old,” Sweeney said. “And then I became an Olympian, and I said, ‘Well, that’s not enough. I want a medal.’”

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