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Five men to watch at World Alpine Skiing Championships

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The time is ripe for new men to establish themselves as Olympic medal contenders at the World Alpine Skiing Championships.

The three most successful active Americans on the World Cup tour are not racing in St. Moritz the next two weeks — Bode Miller (commentating for NBC Sports, but may come back next season), Ted Ligety (back surgery) and Steven Nyman (knee injury).

Neither is Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal, the greatest active speed racer, due to knee surgery.

Who will star in their absences?

The list has to start with Austrian Marcel Hirscher, the five-time reigning World Cup overall champion who is expected to race five of six events (including the team event) in St. Moritz.

Hirscher leads a talented field of 20-somethings who next year will be looking to unseat the aforementioned old guard for their first Olympic gold medals. The new crop is mostly from Europe — Europeans have won 26 of 27 World Cup races this season.

The U.S. team — with neither Miller nor Ligety for the first time since 1997 — has no racers in the top five of the World Cup standings in any discipline. The last time the U.S. men earned no medals at worlds was 2007, which could be a stat heard often over the next two weeks in St. Moritz.

Here’s the schedule (all ET):

Wednesday, Feb. 8 — Super-G — 6 a.m. (NBCSN, Streaming)
Saturday, Feb. 11 — Downhill — 6 a.m. (Streaming; NBC, 2:30 p.m.)
Monday, Feb. 13 — Super Combined Downhill — 4 a.m. (Streaming)
Monday, Feb. 13 — Super Combined Slalom — 7 a.m. (NBCSN, Streaming)
Friday, Feb. 17 — Giant Slalom Run 1 — 3:45 a.m. (Streaming)
Friday, Feb. 17 — Giant Slalom Run 2 — 7 a.m. (NBCSN, Streaming)
Sunday, Feb. 19 — Slalom Run 1 — 3:45 a.m. (Streaming)
Sunday, Feb. 19 — Slalom Run 2 — 7 a.m. (NBCSN, Streaming)

Full broadcast schedule | Five women to watch

Here are five skiers to watch:

Marcel Hirscher, Austria
Expected events: Super-G, Giant Slalom, Slalom, Super Combined
2017 World Cup: Overall standings leader; podiums in 14 of 20 starts
2015 Worlds: Gold in combined; silver in giant slalom; DNF in slalom
2014 Olympics: Silver in slalom; fourth in giant slalom

The Austrian technical-race ace is en route to his sixth straight World Cup overall title this season. No other man has won that many, consecutive or not. He already owns world titles in slalom and super combined, but his best shot at gold in St. Moritz appears to be the giant slalom. Hirscher was second to Ted Ligety at the last two worlds, but the American is out the rest of this season due to back surgery.

Hirscher has already proven his excellence on the World Cup and world championships stages. It’s PyeongChang where he must deliver, since he lacks Olympic gold. Hirscher is only 27 years old, but he has cast doubt on going all the way to the 2022 Winter Games.

Alexis Pinturault, France
Expected events: Super-G, Giant Slalom, Slalom, Super Combined
2017 World Cup: Tied for second in overall standings; four wins
2015 Worlds: Bronze in giant slalom; fifth in combined; 11th in super-G; DNF in slalom
2014 Olympics: Bronze in giant slalom; DNF in slalom, combined

Pinturault, the son of a Norwegian mother and a Courchevel hotelier, is the most talented all-around skier in the world without an Olympic or world title. The 25-year-old has won nine World Cup races in the last 365 days, more than any other man, including Hirscher. That talent manifests most in the super combined. Pinturault has won six of the 11 World Cup combined races since 2013.

Henrik Kristoffersen, Norway
Expected events: Giant Slalom, Slalom
2017 World Cup: Tied for second in overall standings; five wins (all slalom)
2015 Worlds: Fourth in slalom; 13th in giant slalom
2014 Olympics: Bronze in slalom; 10th in giant slalom

Norway is known for its speed skiers, but the 22-year-old Kristoffersen is a notable exception. In Sochi, he became the youngest man to earn an Olympic Alpine medal. He missed the medals at the 2015 Worlds but beat out Hirscher for last season’s World Cup slalom title. This season, Kristoffersen has won five of his eight slalom starts. Nicknamed “Wild Child” as a kid due to his energy, Kristoffersen skipped the season’s first slalom because the Norwegian federation wouldn’t let him wear a helmet with a Red Bull logo.

Kjetil Jansrud, Norway
Expected events: Downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, Super Combined
2017 World Cup: No. 4 in overall standings; four wins
2015 Worlds: Silver in combined; fourth in super-G; 15th in downhill
2014 Olympics: Gold in super-G; bronze in downhill; fourth in combined; DNF in giant slalom

Jansrud, raised in the 1994 Olympic town of Lillehammer, is from more of the burly Attacking Viking mold we’re used to seeing from the Norwegian contingent. He tore his ACL at the 2013 Worlds and came back to have the best Olympics of any male Alpiner with two medals and a fourth-place finish. In the absence of fellow Olympic super-G champion Aksel Lund Svindal, Jansrud shoulders the majority of Norway’s hopes in the speed races in St. Moritz.

Travis Ganong, USA
Expected events: Downhill, Super-G
2017 World Cup: Downhill win in Garmisch-Partenkirchen ended a 15-month U.S. men’s drought
2015 Worlds: Silver in downhill; DNF in super-G
2014 Olympics: Fifth in downhill; 23rd in super-G

With Miller, Ligety and Nyman out, the U.S. medals hopes pretty much rest on Ganong, the only man on the roster with a World Cup win. The 28-year-old enjoyed a fifth-place finish in his Olympic debut in the Sochi downhill, made his first World Cup podium later that month and won his first World Cup race in December 2014. He followed that up with a surprise 2015 World Championships downhill silver medal. Ganong went more than one year between top-five finishes on the World Cup before winning a downhill on Jan. 27.

MORE: Vonn develops friendship with young skier battling cancer

2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

MORE: Takeaways from abbreviated 2019-20 winter sports season

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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