Mikaela Shiffrin, seeking title, makes rare start with Lindsey Vonn

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CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy (AP) — Mikaela Shiffrin is making a rare start in a speed race this weekend to protect her overall World Cup lead.

A specialist in slalom and giant slalom, the American will enter Sunday’s super-G on the Olympia delle Tofane course in Cortina, Italy — marking only the fourth super-G race of her career.

NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app will live stream the downhill Saturday (4:30 a.m. ET) and the super-G Sunday (5:30 a.m. ET).

“She’ll take every opportunity she can to score as many World Cup points as she can,” U.S. head coach Paul Kristofic said Thursday. “This is a hill that always has good conditions and we know that and we felt it was a super-G that suits her well and that’s why we targeted it from the beginning.”

Having taken part in just one speed weekend this season — performing averagely in Lake Louise, Alberta, in early December — Shiffrin’s lead over defending champion Lara Gut in the overall is down to 130 points, nearly a third of what the margin was just a couple of weeks ago.

Shiffrin decided not to enter Saturday’s downhill or even the downhill training sessions, which would have given her a better feeling for the Cortina course.

“It’s always a fine balance between, ‘Do you take one downhill training run?’ vs. ‘How about a day of training somewhere else where you can focus on your other disciplines?’ That’s athletic management, trying to get the most out of every day we have available,” Kristofic said. “And when you’re racing multiple disciplines, those days are few and far between so you have to maximize what you’ve got available to you.”

While Shiffrin makes her debut in Cortina — long considered the premier event on the women’s tour — another American skier, Lindsey Vonn, will be the star attraction at the resort where she has won a record 11 races, including a sweep of the downhill and super-G races on the Tofane last year.

Vonn won a downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, last weekend in just her second race back from nearly a year out with a knee injury and a broken arm. She’s still regaining her form in super-G, though, as evidenced by her ninth-place result in that discipline in Garmisch.

“It’s a building process. We’re taking it step by step,” Kristofic said. “The timing in super-G is the trickiest part. You get a lot of force in the ski and a lot of things happening in a short amount of time and only one chance to look at the course.”

Two years ago, Vonn broke Annemarie Moser-Proell‘s all-time women’s World Cup record of 62 wins circuit-wide in Cortina. Vonn now has 77 victories and is approaching Ingemar Stenmark‘s men’s mark of 86.

Meanwhile, Julia Mancuso completed her first official downhill training run Thursday as she attempts to return from hip surgery. The four-time Olympic medalist placed 49th, nearly five seconds behind leader Ilka Stuhec of Slovenia.

“It’s a long-term process for her,” Kristofic said.

Mancuso will also likely focus on Sunday’s super-G.

“In downhill in particular it’s unlikely that she’ll race,” Kristofic said.

Gut placed second in training and Vonn was third. Americans Laurenne Ross and Jacqueline Wiles finished sixth and 16th, respectively.

“Laurenne has had great speed all year. She unfortunately had a bit of bad luck around Val d’Isere,” Kristofic said, recalling how Ross got sick and could not race the downhill in the French resort after leading training.

Ross also got injured in a training crash in Garmisch.

“So a little bad luck,” Kristofic said. “She’s looking to have a breakthrough here and have a great result.”

Wiles scored her first career podium with a third-place result in Austria earlier this month.

“(Cortina) is a true downhillers course and Jackie is a true downhiller,” Kristofic said. “Everything that makes a great downhiller, she’s got it. It’s consistency for her and trying to build that every run.”

This is the U.S. team’s final weekend of qualifying for next month’s world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland. So far, only Shiffrin, Vonn and Wiles have qualified automatically with their podium results.

“There’s an ongoing battle for those spots, so we’ll see how the weekend plays out,” Kristofic said.

Having Vonn back has energized the entire team.

“We missed her terribly when she was not with us and when she’s back it’s a huge bonus for us,” Kristofic said. “It definitely lifts the team and also brings good pace to our training and puts the bar higher and everyone usually steps up.”

MORE: Vonn sets date on proposal to enter men’s race

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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