Julia Mancuso returns after 6 months on crutches

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ALTENMARKT-ZAUCHENSEE, Austria (AP) — Returning to World Cup skiing after 22 months, Julia Mancuso has found a new balance in her life.

And it’s not just the surgically repaired right hip the 2006 Olympic champion is referring to.

“The year off just helped me to reset,” Mancuso told The Associated Press ahead of Saturday’s downhill, where she planned to race for the first time since March 2015 (5:15 a.m. ET, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

“It was nice to have a less stressful year,” the American said. “Having a year off when you have your hip to heal, gives the rest of your body a really good chance. As far as the rest of my body, I feel super-healed. I feel like I am in a better position and I am a lot more balanced.”

Getting married, to Dylan Fish, also helped the 32-year-old Mancuso to resettle in her season away from the slopes.

“You definitely check out,” said Mancuso, who is accompanied by Fish in Austria. “I live part-time in Hawaii, part-time in Fiji, where my husband lives. It was nice because I never got to do these things like Christmas at home.”

Born with hip dysplasia, Mancuso has long fought against the pain. It didn’t prevent her from winning seven World Cup races and becoming the most decorated American female skier at major competitions, with four Olympic and five world championship medals.

But as therapy and medication were no longer sufficient, surgery became unavoidable and forced Mancuso to sit out the 2015-16 season.

Her hip turned out to be far more damaged than it initially seemed. It made recovery even harder. Instead of the planned two months, Mancuso had to go on crutches for half a year.

After a lot of powder skiing in the fall, she felt she had to get back to racing again.

“It’s just kind of what fuels me, what gets me excited,” Mancuso said. “I had to get out of being home. Because if I was home, I would definitely be stuck in a pattern of not having the energy to go on the road and start competing.”

Mancuso picked the first speed races of the new year to rejoin the U.S. women’s speed team, knowing that the hill in Zauchensee suits her.

At 17, she got her first career top-10 result in the Austrian resort as she placed fifth in the downhill of the 2002 World Cup finals, shortly after winning the junior world title. And she won a combined event on the slope 10 years ago, sharing the podium with another American standout, Lindsey Vonn.

Mancuso’s return to the team was greeted by Vonn, who herself was eyeing a comeback to racing after an 11-month layoff to nurse an injured knee and broken arm.

“In the last year, without her, you definitely felt a little bit of a hole on the team. So it’s nice to have her back,” Vonn said. “I am really pulling for her and I want her to have success.”

Mancuso said her rehab and comeback were hardly comparable to Vonn’s.

“She is definitely coming back from a very dramatic injury. She is doing really well and skiing well, besides her arm,” said Mancuso, adding she felt “like I am pretty far off.”

“I am still missing a lot of strength. I am feeling pretty good on my skis in the morning when I get up and take my first runs. My hip starts to get a little more fatigued during the day.”

Mancuso hoped to be back at full strength for summer training in order to find the limits of her skiing again next season.

“Even though I have everything else, it is hard with the injury because I don’t want that to be what keeps me from doing what I love,” Mancuso said. “I just feel like I want to get back to my potential before I can decide that I want to retire from ski racing.”

For Mancuso, the prospect of having another shot at Olympic medals at the 2018 PyeongChang Games in South Korea pushed aside any thoughts about calling it a career.

“When I set the goal of going to the next Olympics and wanting to be a medal contender,” Mancuso said, “there is not an option to do anything else.”

MORE: Lindsey Vonn: I can still win World Cup titles

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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