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

Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic was simply too good at the most crucial moments and claimed his 10th Australian Open championship and 22nd Grand Slam title overall by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) in the final at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night.

The victory allows Djokovic to return to No. 1 in the ATP rankings.

The 35-year-old from Serbia did not compete in the Australian Open a year ago after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19.

Government restrictions have eased since, and he was able to get a visa this time despite still not having gotten the shots against the illness caused by the coronavirus.

Now Djokovic has run his winning streak at the hard-court tournament to 28 matches.

His 10th trophy in Australia adds to the record he already held. His 22 major championships — which include seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open and two from the French Open — are tied with Rafael Nadal for the most by a man in the history of tennis.

He was superior throughout against Tsitsipas, but especially so in the two tiebreakers.

Djokovic took a 4-1 lead in the first and after it was 4-all, pulled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple then climbed into the stands, pumped his fist and jumped with his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, and other members of the entourage, before collapsing, crying.

Djokovic returned to the court, sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and let some more tears flow.

Margaret Court, with 24, Serena Williams, with 23, and Steffi Graf, with 22, have the most championships among women.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, allowing him to break a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most. Jimmy Connors holds that mark, at 109.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece’s other one also ended in a loss to Djokovic, at the 2021 French Open.

A win for Tsitsipas would have allowed him to get to No. 1 for the first time, supplanting Carlos Alcaraz, who got there after winning the U.S. Open last September but sat out the Australian Open because of a leg injury.

Little doubt this is of no solace to Tsitsipas, but there is no shame in failing to defeat Djokovic in Melbourne. Challenging his dominion on those blue hard courts is every bit the monumental task that taking on Nadal on the red clay at Roland Garros is.

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Chock/Bates, Knierim/Frazier futures unclear after clear-cut wins at figure skating nationals

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SAN JOSE, California – They have both begun the new Olympic cycle as the undisputed national leaders in their figure skating disciplines, cementing that status with U.S. titles Saturday – the fourth for ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the second for the pairs’ team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.

At this point, their respective paths to the 2026 Winter Games seem free and clear of challengers.

The question for the dancers and the pair is how far down that road they intend to go.

“I don’t know what the next four years will hold,” Chock said. “But we’re committed to each other and our goals, and we’ll decide when the time comes.”

Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, engaged to be married in the summer of 2024, have been at this a long time. And their trophy case is packed to the gills, with the only gaps a world title and an individual Olympic medal.

They have competed together at the senior level in the U.S. Championships for 12 seasons, winning medals at the last 11. They have been to nine world championships, winning three medals, and three Olympics (four for Bates), winning a yet-to-be-awarded team medal last year in Beijing.

(The unresolved doping case involving Russian skater Kamila Valiyeva has delayed the awarding of the 2022 team event medals. Maybe it will become a wedding present for Chock and Bates. Or a fifth anniversary present…)

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Until this year, Chock and Bates had faced formidable rivals on the national scene – 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White; 2018 Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani; and 2022 Olympic bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, with whom Chock and Bates traded gold medals over the previous four seasons. All have retired from competition.

Saturday, they cruised to the gold medal by 22.29 points over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, the largest ice dance victory margin at nationals since 2006. In a discipline where established hierarchy weighs heavily, Chock and Bates find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being on a metaphorical easy street to the top step of the U.S. podium.

“We – at least I – felt nervous today,” Bates said. “We (still) felt compelled to skate well. The lack of maybe the Hubbell-Donohue back and forth did not mitigate the specialness today.”

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, have similar longevity at nationals, even if they did not team up until 2020, taking the U.S. title in their first season together.

Knierim skated at seven nationals with her husband, Chris, winning three titles, Frazier at seven with Haven Denney, winning once.

Knierim and Frazier had expected to retire after last season, when they missed nationals because Frazier contracted Covid but went on to place sixth at the Olympics and unexpectedly became the first U.S. team to win a pairs’ world title since 1979. Their experiences on the Stars on Ice Tour led them to reconsider.

“It made sense on our timeline to move on,” Knierim told me in September. “We had done everything we could in two years.

“Yet it felt like it could be sad or disappointing to end a really talented career together so soon. Being on tour had opened our eyes to how in synch and unified we were on the ice. So there was a little bit of curiosity, a feeling of ‘What else are we capable of?’”

Their personal circumstances have changed during the course of this season. Chris Knierim starts work Thursday as skating director of a rink in the Chicago suburbs, and the Knierims recently bought a house in that area.

Knierim and Frazier have been training at a rink in Irvine, California. Should they decide to continue as competitors after this season, it would almost certainly entail a move to Chicago for Frazier.

Knierim insisted her house purchase was not an indication of what her plans with Frazier are.

“Right now, we are staying the course, based in Irvine through the world championships (in late March),” Knierim said before winning her fifth U.S. title.

“We do have some changes ahead of us. But I’d hate to jump ahead and say yes or no to next season. We learned that last season.”

Frazier spoke Saturday of reflecting throughout this season about their personal journeys and their partnership, the kind of reflection that often accompanies doing something for the last time.

“We just are trying to soak it in as if it could be your last, but the future is unknown,” Frazier said.

Knierim and Frazier prevailed Saturday with the largest winning margin, 31.11 points, in the 18 years that the International Judging System has been used at nationals.

They saved several points due to her quick thinking.

After Frazier put his hand to the ice on the triple toe loop that was to open a triple-double-double-jump combination, Knierim saw that her partner was going to follow with only a single jump and followed suit. It led to the delightful oddity of side-by-side single toe loops.

Nicely executed ones, too.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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