Geno Auriemma wouldn’t have returned without Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi

Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi
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STORRS, Conn. — Geno Auriemma doesn’t think he would have returned to coach the U.S. women’s basketball team at a second straight Olympics unless Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi came back, too.

“I wouldn’t be good enough as a coach to guide the team through a gold medal [at Rio 2016],” Auriemma said at the end of a three-day national team camp at the University of Connecticut on Tuesday. “I need them to help me. That’s how good they are, and that’s how smart they are. And that’s how used to winning they are. So, I wouldn’t trust myself to be able to do it without them.”

Auriemma, 61, is in his 31st season coaching UConn, a run that’s included 10 NCAA titles, four of them with Bird and/or Taurasi on the roster from 2000-04.

In 2012, Auriemma led the U.S. women’s basketball team at the Olympics for the first time.

The Americans went undefeated, running their Olympic winning streak to 41 games. Auriemma called the experience more special because the 12-woman roster included six of his former UConn players, and the dynamic perimeter duo of Bird and Taurasi in particular.

“I think [Taurasi] knows, and particularly her and Sue, I think they know one of my reasons for wanting to do it in the first place was, obviously, being an Olympic coach means a lot, but the opportunity to coach the two of them again was pretty powerful,” Auriemma said.

Auriemma thought that would be his only Olympic head-coaching experience.

“It’s not my turn anymore,” Auriemma said in 2013. “It’s someone else’s turn. I did what I was asked to do and what I wanted to do.

“First of all, I was never asked [to return], so I didn’t want to presume anything. Second of all, I really did think USA Basketball, on the women’s side, has never done that [retain an Olympic coach for the following Games]. So why should I presume I would be the first?”

That all changed on July 31, 2013. USA Basketball finally asked Auriemma.

And on a cleverly planned day — when the coach felt particularly patriotic at the White House, feted with his national champion UConn team by President Obama.

“I was reminded that the opportunity to represent your country is one you don’t take lightly,” Auriemma said in a press release announcing his return to coach the team about one month later. “This is not an opportunity that comes along too often. I was humbled by the request, and I’m honored to do it again.”

Auriemma said the choice did not come easy. It was the longest he had ever taken to make a decision. Unspecified NBA and U.S. leaders nudged him to come back.

On Tuesday, the three-time Olympic champions Bird and Taurasi said they had deep conversations with Auriemma to persuade him as well.

“I think he was really thinking about it and kind of seesawing,” Bird said. “There was definitely a phone conversation that happened. That was probably, in that conversation, the most honest I’ve ever been with him.”

Taurasi said she communicates with Auriemma three times per week, even when she’s playing professionally in Russia.

“Coach, he knows how to use an iPhone now, that’s made communicating a little bit easier,” joked Taurasi, adding that she sat down with, called and texted Auriemma to convince him to go for 2016. “After London, I feel like there was still a little unfinished business for him.”

How can a coach of an undefeated Olympic champion team possibly have unfinished business?

“It wouldn’t be as far as results or scoring more points,” Taurasi said. “I think he just saw an opportunity with, maybe a new breed of players, that he can instill something that can go a long way. I think he’s doing that.”

The comment immediately brought to mind current UConn senior Breanna Stewart, the youngest player among 25 Olympic team finalists who is attempting to duplicate Taurasi’s feat from 2004 — win an NCAA title and an Olympic gold medal in the same year.

Back to Bird, the U.S.’ starting point guard for the last decade. She seemed hesitant to commit to 2016 in the emotional moments after taking gold in London.

But Bird and Taurasi’s message to Auriemma in 2013 couldn’t have been clearer.

“It was, well, we’re going to do it one more time,” Auriemma said. “We’re going to try to give it a shot one more time. I was like, yeah, but I’ve already done it. Then they talked about, let’s do it again. Let’s see where it takes us. Between that and [U.S. women’s national team director] Carol Callan and [USA Basketball CEO] Jim Tooley and USA Basketball, it kind of put the screws on me.

“You had two answers. Yes, and, yes, when can I start? You weren’t going to say no to them.”

MORE: Auriemma: UConn wouldn’t ‘make it at the Olympics’

NBC Olympic researcher Amanda Doyle contributed to this report.

Mikaela Shiffrin heads to world championships with medal records in sight

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Before Mikaela Shiffrin can hold the World Cup wins record, she can become the most decorated Alpine skier in modern world championships history.

Shiffrin takes a respite from World Cup pursuits for the biennial world championships in France. She is expected to race at least four times, beginning with Monday’s combined.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup victories in 23 starts this season, her best since her record 17-win 2018-19 campaign, but world championships do not count toward the World Cup.

Shiffrin remains one career victory behind Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s record 86 World Cup wins until at least her next World Cup start in March.

Shiffrin has been more successful at worlds than at the Olympics and even on the World Cup. She has 11 medals in 13 world championships races dating to her 2013 debut, including making the podium in each of her last 10 events.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

She enters worlds one shy of the modern, post-World War II individual records for total medals (Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt won 12) and gold medals (Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchwoman Marielle Goitschel and Swede Anja Pärson won seven).

Worlds take place exactly one year after Shiffrin missed the medals in all of her Olympic races, but that’s not motivating her.

“If I learned anything last year, it’s that these big events, they can go amazing, and they can go terrible, and you’re going to survive no matter what,” she said after her most recent World Cup last Sunday. “So I kind of don’t care.”

Shiffrin ranks No. 1 in the world this season in the giant slalom (Feb. 16 at worlds) and slalom (Feb. 18).

This year’s combined is one run of super-G coupled with one run of slalom (rather than one downhill and one slalom), which also plays to her strengths. She won that event, with that format, at the last worlds in 2021. The combined isn’t contested on the World Cup, so it’s harder to project favorites.

Shiffrin is also a medal contender in the super-G (Feb. 8), despite starting just two of five World Cup super-Gs this season (winning one of them).

She is not planning to race the downhill (Feb. 11), which she often skips on the World Cup and has never contested at a worlds. Nor is she expected for the individual parallel (Feb. 15), a discipline she hasn’t raced in three years in part due to the strain it puts on her back with the format being several runs for the medalists.

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Lucas Braathen, world’s top male slalom skier, in doubt for world championships

Lucas Braathen
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Norway’s Lucas Braathen, the world’s top male slalom skier this season, is doubtful to compete in the world championships slalom on Feb. 19 after appendix surgery on Tuesday.

“It’s been a tough couple of days fighting after surprisingly finding out about quite an intense infection on my appendix,” Braathen, a 22-year-old soccer convert with a Brazilian mom, posted on social media. “I’ve been through surgery and I’m blessed that it went successfully.”

The Norway Alpine skiing team doctor said Braathen’s recovery will take a few weeks, but there is a small possibility he can make it back for the world championships slalom, which is on the final day of the two-week competition.

Braathen has two slalom wins and one giant slalom win this World Cup season. He will miss Saturday’s slalom in Chamonix, France, the last race before worlds. Countryman Henrik Kristoffersen and Swiss Daniel Yule can overtake him atop the World Cup slalom standings in Chamonix.

Braathen entered last year’s Olympics as the World Cup slalom leader and skied out in the first run at the Games.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

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