Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin lead World Alpine Skiing Championships women’s preview

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Lindsey Vonn will ski for medals for the first time in two years next week, following two crashes, two major knee surgeries and one missed Olympics.

She won’t be alone in the spotlight at the first World Alpine Skiing Championships in the U.S. since 1999. Mikaela Shiffrin is a gold-medal favorite, like Vonn, but specializing in different events. Julia Mancuso will look to extend her record of global championship success, unmatched among American women.

The world’s best skiers will invade Beaver Creek, Colo., a group that includes the last two World Cup overall champions — Tina Maze and Anna Fenninger.

Here’s the schedule (all ET):

Tuesday, Feb. 3 — Super-G, 1 p.m. (NBCSN, Live Extra at 12:55)
Friday, Feb. 6 — Downhill, 1 p.m. (NBCSN, Live Extra at 12:55)
Monday, Feb. 9 — Super Combined Downhill, noon (Universal Sports)
Monday, Feb. 9 — Super Combined Slalom, 4:15 p.m. (NBCSN, Live Extra at 4)
Thursday, Feb. 12 — Giant Slalom Run 1, 12:15 p.m. (Universal Sports at noon)
Thursday, Feb. 12 — Giant Slalom Run 2, 4:15 p.m. (NBCSN, Live Extra at 4)
Saturday, Feb. 14 — Slalom Run 1, 12:15 p.m. (Universal Sports at noon)
Saturday, Feb. 14 — Slalom Run 2, 4:15 p.m. (NBC, Live Extra at 4:30)

Full broadcast schedule

Here are five skiers to watch:

Lindsey Vonn
Possible events: Downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, Super Combined
2015 World Cup: Five wins in 10 races (all downhill and super-G); leads downill and super-G standings
2014 Olympics: Did not compete (injury)
2013 World Championships: DNF in super-G (crash)

Vonn hasn’t come out of a World Championships healthy since 2005. In 2007, she crashed in a slalom training run and suffered a season-ending ACL sprain. In 2009, she sliced open her right thumb on a broken champagne bottle after winning the downhill. In 2011, she ended her Worlds after two races due to post-concussion effects. In 2013, that crash in the opening super-G.

So Vonn will hope for better at home, with Tiger Woods slated to appear amid a busy golf schedule. Vonn is the favorite in the opening super-G and the downhill, especially having trained on the course much more than top rivals Tina Maze, Anna Fenninger and Lara Gut (though Vonn has yet to *race* there).

She hasn’t raced anything other than downhill and super-G in more than two years, so her chances in the giant slalom and, possibly, the super combined aren’t clear.

Vonn talks fear, risk, future ahead of World Championships

Mikaela Shiffrin
Possible events: Giant Slalom, Slalom
2015 World Cup: Three wins in 10 races (all giant slalom and slalom); second in slalom standings, third in giant slalom standings
2014 Olympics: Gold in slalom, fifth in giant slalom
2013 World Championships: Gold in slalom, sixth in giant slalom

Also skiing at home, Shiffrin will be very familiar with her schedule. It’s the same two races she’s done exclusively on the World Cup and at the World Championships and Olympics the last two years.

The 19-year-old overcame an early season slump and won two of her last three races going into Worlds. That affirmed her favorite status in the slalom, barely over a group that includes the World Cup slalom standings leader Frida Hansdotter of Sweden. Shiffrin will try to become the second woman since World War II to successfully defend a World title in that event, joining the Croatian legend Janica Kostelic.

Shiffrin is also a medal threat in giant slalom, with the last two World Cup overall champions Tina Maze and Anna Fenninger. Italian Deborah Compagnoni is the only woman to sweep the slalom and giant slalom at a World Championships in the last 30 years.

As with the Olympics, we won’t see Shiffrin race until the second week of the competition.

Video: Shiffrin comes up just short in last race before Worlds

source: Getty Images
Tina Maze won three medals at the 2013 World Championships. (Getty Images)

Tina Maze
Possible events: Everything
2015 World Cup: Three wins in 20 races; overall standings leader, top five in every discipline
2014 Olympics: Gold in downhill, giant slalom; fourth in super combined; fifth in super-G; eighth in slalom
2013 World Championships: Gold in super-G; silver in super combined, giant slalom; fifth in slalom, seventh in downhill

These may be the final World Championships for the Slovenian who fancies singing. Maze, 31, has said she will not ski at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and will decide after this season whether to continue competing at all.

She would be leaving at or near the top of the sport. Maze, two years removed from perhaps the greatest season in World Cup history, will likely win the World Cup overall title again this season.

It wouldn’t be a shock if she collects medals in all five World Championships races, which no woman has ever done (one man has, Norway’s Lasse Kjus in 1999).

Anna Fenninger
Possible events: Downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, Super Combined
2015 World Cup: Seven podiums in 14 races; second in overall standings
2014 Olympics: Gold in super-G; silver in giant slalom; eighth in super combined; DNF in downhill
2013 World Championships: Bronze in giant slalom; 11th in downhill; DNF in super-G, super combined

Fenninger is five and six years younger than Vonn and Maze. She is the future of the speed events along with Swiss Lara Gut. Fenninger hasn’t won since the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, but she finished second in each of the last three races.

Austria is the most successful nation in ski racing history, and she is its female star following the retirement of slalom ace Marlies Schild. She has more Twitter followers than Shiffrin and Maze but is certainly not as recognized, especially among the U.S. audience.

Julia Mancuso
Possible events: Downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, Super Combined
2015 World Cup: One podium in 13 races
2014 Olympics: Bronze in super combined; eighth in downhill, super-G; DNF in giant slalom
2013 World Championships: Bronze in super-G; fifth in downhill; eighth in super combined; 22nd in giant slalom

Incredibly, Mancuso has more combined Olympic and Worlds medals (nine in 36 races) than World Cup wins (seven in 392 races). Even though she isn’t in the top five of any World Cup discipline this season, Mancuso is a definite medal threat in multiple events at Worlds. Bode Miller is the only U.S. skier with more combined Olympic and Worlds medals, with 11.

World Championships men’s preview

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

Lin Dan
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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

MyKayla Skinner
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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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