Vashti Cunningham
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Ten U.S. track and field athletes who benefit from Russia ban

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At the London Olympics, Russia finished second to the U.S. in the track and field medal standings.

With Russia unable to send a track and field team to Rio, top rivals to U.S. Olympic medal hopefuls may be absent from the Games in August.

The IAAF left “a very tiny crack in the door” for Russian athletes to apply to compete in Rio independently, should they prove to have been subjected to reliable drug testing outside of the Russian regime.

Until then, these 10 Americans’ medal hopes were boosted with Friday’s announcement:

Jenn Suhr, Pole Vault

Russia’s biggest track and field star is 2004 and 2008 Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva. In 2012, Suhr relegated Isinbayeva to bronze in London.

Isinbayeva came back to win the 2013 World Championship over Suhr and then took off all of 2014 and 2015 due to pregnancy. Isinbayeva’s comeback this year (she can compete domestically but not internationally) has been slowed by injury, but will sue after Friday’s IAAF ruling.

Suhr lobbied Thursday for Isinbayeva to be allowed to compete in Rio.

Suhr cleared an indoor world record of 5.03 meters on Jan. 30, the best mark indoors or outdoors in the world since Isinbayeva’s last outdoor world record of 5.06 in 2009.

MORE: Russia Olympic ban upheld | Five Russian stars who may miss Rio

Vashti Cunningham, High Jump

In no track and field event is Russia deeper than women’s high jump. Russians earned two medals each at the 2012 Olympics, 2013 World Championships and 2015 World Championships, including golds at all three from Anna ChicherovaSvetlana Shkolina and Mariya Kuchina.

Last year, seven of the world’s nine clearances of 2.00 meters or higher came from Chicherova and Kuchina.

Take all the Russians out, and the women’s high jump field in Rio is wide open. There are the veterans — led by Ruth Beitia, 37, of Spain and Blanka Vlasic, 32, of Croatia — and the newcomers such as Vashti Cunningham, the World Indoor champion and daughter of retired NFL All-Pro quarterback Randall Cunningham.

Cunningham has yet to replicate her indoor success in outdoor meets this spring, ranking seventh in the world.

Erik Kynard, High Jump

Russia actually swept the 2012 Olympic high jump titles, with Ivan Ukhov taking gold over Kynard.

Neither Ukhov nor Kynard made the podium at the 2013 Worlds (Ukhov fourth, Kynard fifth) or 2015 Worlds (Kynard eighth, Ukhov failing to make the final). Another Russian, Daniil Tsyplakov, placed fifth in 2015, though.

The Olympic high jump gold-medal favorite, regardless of Russia participation, appears to be Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim.

Alysia Montaño and Ajee’ Wilson, 800m

Russia took gold and bronze in the 2012 Olympic 800m, with both runners (Mariya Savinova and Ekaterina Poistogova) being implicated in doping reports as far back as December 2014.

Savinova and Poistogova were likely to miss Rio regardless of Friday’s ruling, as both were recommended last year to serve life bans by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

But Russia has long been strong in the women’s 800m, and other medal threats could have emerged. Without Russia, South African Caster Semenya is an even bigger gold-medal favorite. Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba is in solid silver-medal-favorite position.

After that, Montaño and Wilson are medal threats if they make the Rio team by finishing in the top three at the Olympic Trials on July 4.

Montaño was fifth at the 2012 Olympics and fourth at the 2013 World Championships. Wilson ran the fastest time in the world for 2014.

Aries Merritt and David Oliver, 110m Hurdles

Merritt is the reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder. Oliver took the 2013 World title. But Russian Sergey Shubenkov is the reigning World 110m hurdles champion, beating both Americans last year.

Shubenkov was eliminated in the first round at 2011 Worlds, then the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics before winning bronze at the 2013 Worlds behind Oliver.

Shubenkov captured the 2015 World title in a national-record 12.98 seconds on Aug. 28, but his best time in three domestic races this year has been merely 13.24, according to Tilastopaja.org. He clocked 13.41 in his most recent race June 4.

Merritt, who is coming off a Sept. 1 kidney transplant and a follow-up surgery more than one month later, also has a best time of 13.24 this year. Oliver is the fastest American this year at 13.09.

But everyone is looking up at Jamaican Omar McLeod, who has the four best times in the world this year, including a 12.98.

Johnny Dutch, 400m Hurdles

Dutch, a part-time filmmaker, is a 27-year-old veteran who has never made an Olympic team nor a World Championships final in two tries in 2009 and 2015.

But he is looking like the Rio Olympic favorite, with the two fastest times in the world this year at 48.10 and 48.36 seconds. Next fastest? 48.67 seconds.

His chances would be boosted slightly by the absence of Russian Denis Kudryavtsev from Rio. Kudryavtsev emerged last year to take silver at the World Championships in a national record 48.05 seconds.

Plus, surprise World champion Nicholas Bett of Kenya has struggled mightily so far this year. The U.S. swept the 400m hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Games and may have a great shot to do so again in Rio.

Brittney Reese and Tianna Bartoletta, Long Jump

The U.S. is home to the reigning Olympic champion (Reese) and World champion (Bartoletta) in the long jump, but Russia has been producing world-class jumpers en masse for several years.

From 2009 to 2015, a different Russian woman ranked in the top six in the world every year. Some Russians showed up multiple times, but there was at least one new one every year.

However, the best Russian woman this year, using results from small, domestic competitions, would not rank in the world top 10. Bartoletta, who won her two World titles 10 years apart, has struggled, too, ranking fifth among Americans.

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Takeaways from the abbreviated 2019-20 season in ski and snowboard sports

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Most ski sports don’t hold world championships in even-numbered years, but the coronavirus pandemic brought World Cup campaigns to an early conclusion two years ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

With the seasons over, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team is collecting goggles to provide to health-care workers.

Here’s what we learned in various sports:

ALPINE: Mikaela Shiffrin has company 

The U.S. ski star was on pace to win her fourth straight World Cup season trophy before her father’s sudden passing in early February. She planned to return in March with an outside chance at keeping her title, but the remaining races of the season were canceled. Italy’s Federica Brignone took the trophy, with Shiffrin second.

While Shiffrin held a substantial lead in the World Cup before her hiatus, she wasn’t as unbeatable as she was in the 2018-19 season, when she won a staggering 17 times. That’s an impossible bar to clear, but Shiffrin’s rivals made up enough ground to make future World Cup season titles and the career win record seem less certain than they seemed a year ago.

In Shiffrin’s final slalom race, a discipline in which she has rarely lost in recent years, she placed third behind Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova and Sweden’s Anna Swenn Larsson. Ten days before that, she was second to Vlhova, whose progress impressed Shiffrin. That marked that first time since 2014 that she lost two straight slaloms in the same season. (She was second in the 2016-17 season finale and second again in the 2017-18 season opener, then won 12 of the next 13 slaloms.)

Shiffrin’s ability to get on the podium in any race, no matter the discipline, will make her the World Cup favorite for years to come. But the big prize won’t be as easy as she has made it seem in recent years, and at 66 career victories, she’ll need time to catch Lindsey Vonn‘s women’s record of 82 wins and Ingemar Stenmark‘s overall record of 86.

CROSS-COUNTRY: Diggins, Bjornsen stay in world’s elite 

Jessie Diggins will forever be remembered for winning the 2018 Olympic team sprint with Kikkan Randall as NBC’s Chad Salmela screamed “HERE COMES DIGGINS,” but she also has a strong World Cup resume that she continues to build.

Diggins finished sixth in the season standings for the second straight year, a drop from her second-place finish in 2018 but still comfortably in the top 10. She was joined there by Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, who eighth-place season put her in the top 10 for the second time.

Bjornsen led the three-stage season opener in Ruka, Finland, after taking third in the sprint and finished fourth overall, one place ahead of Diggins, who took third in the pursuit. Diggins added four more podium finishes before the end of the season.

NORDIC COMBINED: Norway takes control 

Jarl Magnus Riiber won his second straight World Cup title at age 22, with fellow Norwegian Joergen Graabak taking a career-high second. Two more Norwegians were in the top six Jens Luraas Oftebro (fourth) and Espen Bjoernstad (sixth). 

In women’s Nordic combined, which is on track to become an Olympic event, U.S. athlete Tara Geraghty-Moats was a close second to Russia’s Stefaniya Nadymova.

READ: Geraghty-Moats has eyes on 2026

SKI JUMPING: U.S. women shut out 

A decade after leading the charge to get women’s ski jumping in the Olympics and eight years after teenager Sarah Hendrickson won the World Cup, the U.S. women went a whole season without an athlete picking up World Cup points. Hendrickson postponed her retirement but competed only on the Continental Cup this season.

U.S. women also won two of the first three ski jumping world championships Lindsey Van in 2009 and Hendrickson in 2013.

In men’s jumping, Austria’s Stefan Kraft edged out Germany’s Karl Geiger to reclaim the World Cup title he last held in 2017. Geiger’s previous career best was 10th in 2019. Japan’s Ryoyu Kobayashi, last year’s champion, took third.

FREESTYLE SKIING: Blunck keeps flying

U.S. halfpipe skier Aaron Blunck followed up his second straight world championship in 2019 with his first World Cup season title. Blunck won both events in the U.S. — December’s competition at Copper Mountain and February’s event at Mammoth Mountain. 

Colby Stevenson (slopestyle) and Alexander Hall (big air) were second in their events. Hall won twice, landing a switch left double 1800 to win in the Atlanta Braves’ SunTrust Park. Stevenson also won at the X Games in Aspen.

In women’s competition, 18-year-old Marin Hamill was second in slopestyle, and Jaelin Kauf finished in the top three for the third straight year.

French skier Perrine Laffont had a dominant season in women’s moguls, winning all six regular moguls events and two of four dual moguls, to take her second straight World Cup title.

SNOWBOARDING: Corning wins in Atlanta and in World Cup

Atlanta’s SunTrust Park hosted a World Cup big air competition, with Chris Corning and Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi winning. Corning also won in Cardrona, New Zealand, and took his second big air season title to go along with slopestyle titles in 2016, 2018 and 2019.

Dusty Henricksen was third in World Cup slopestyle on the strength of a win at Mammoth Mountain, followed by fellow U.S. teen Justus Henkes.

U.S. women’s snowboarders Jamie Anderson and Julia Marino won the only World Cup slopestyle events each one entered. Anderson also won the X Games slopestyle.

Olympic and world halfpipe champion Chloe Kim sat out the season after breaking an ankle in March 2019 and enrolling at Princeton.

BIATHLON: Never count out Dunklee 

Susan Dunklee hasn’t had great success on the World Cup circuit since taking a world championship silver medal in 2017, when she finished a career-best 10th in the World Cup, but she once again took world championship silver in the sprint at Antholz.

Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Boe won the men’s World Cup title despite missing two weeks after the birth of his first child, edging Frenchman Martin Fourcade by two points to spoil the seven-time World Cup champion’s final season.

Boe won his second straight World Cup title, as did Italy’s Dorothea Weirer in the women’s competition.

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Simon Ammann ramps up for one more run at Olympic ski jumping

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Simon Ammann, the Swiss ski jumper who gained fame for his resemblance to Harry Potter in 2002 and went to win all four Olympic ski jumps on North American soil this century, has walked back talk of retirement and now says he wants to continue through the 2022 Olympics.

Ammann won the normal hill and large hill in Salt Lake City in 2002. European ski jumpers don’t necessarily get attention from U.S. talk shows, but the 20-year-old Ammann had two things that set him apart. First, his wins were tremendous upsets. Second, he looked like Harry Potter.

He wound up appearing on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” which makes him a wild-card connection in the Kevin Bacon game the peripatetic actor was the other guest on the show that night, and Ammann happily posed with Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick after the show.

Eight years later, Ammann duplicated the feat in Vancouver. This time, he left behind the Harry Potter glasses behind, though he made an enthusiastic walk through the mixed zone wearing comically oversized sunglasses that made him look like the Buggles’ Trevor Horn in the “Video Killed the Radio Star” video, the first music video on MTV.

In 2010, his victories weren’t quite as unexpected. He won the World Cup season title that year, sandwiched between two second-place finishes.

In 2002, on the other hand, he took off from the Olympic hill at Park City having never won a World Cup event. His two wins in the Olympics were his first two in any international competition in the FIS database.

Ammann has also had success in major competition in Asia. He took gold and silver in the 2007 world championships in Sapporo, Japan, the first two of his four career world championship medals. He also won a World Cup event in Sapporo in 2010.

In recent years, though, Ammann hasn’t been competitive on the World Cup circuit. He has been on the podium only once since 2015. Since taking his last major-event medal in 2011, his best result in the world championships was seventh place in 2013.

But he’s already shown he can, like Harry Potter, conjure a surprising performance.

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