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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

At U.S. Open swim meet, teens make a splash with Olympic trials on horizon

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While Olympic and world champions Katie LedeckySimone Manuel and Chase Kalisz notched expected victories at the U.S. Open on Thursday, a trio of teenagers lowered personal bests to further establish their Tokyo Olympic hopes.

At the top domestic meet of the winter, Alex WalshCarson Foster and Kieran Smith each earned runner-up finishes, but their performances stood out in the big picture: looking at June’s Olympic trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

Walsh, a rising Nashville high school senior, took 2.23 seconds off her 200m individual medley best. She clocked 2:09.01, overtaken by .17 by Melanie Margalis, the Rio Olympic and 2019 World Championships fourth-place finisher.

Full meet results are here.

Walsh moved from fifth-fastest in the U.S. this year to No. 2 behind Margalis, passing Olympic and world championships veterans Ella EastinKathleen Baker and Madisyn Cox. Of those swimmers, only Eastin was also in Thursday’s final.

Walsh joined her younger sister, Gretchen, in Olympic qualifying position based on 2019 times. Gretchen, 16, ranks fourth in the U.S. in the 100m free this year. The top six in that event at trials are in line to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool.

The Walshes could become the third set of sisters to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team, and the second to do it in pool swimming after Dana and Tara Kirk in 2004.

Foster, 18, continued his ascent Thursday in taking second to Kalisz in the men’s 200m IM. The world junior champion lowered his personal best in the prelims and the final, getting down to 1:57.59. Foster passed Ryan Lochte, who is nearly twice his age, in Thursday’s final and in the 2019 U.S. rankings. Only Kalisz and Michael Andrew have been faster among Americans this year.

Foster is trying to become the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut. Foster, who has been breaking Phelps national age-group records since he was 10, committed to the University of Texas in March 2018, two years before he graduates high school in Ohio.

Then there’s Kieran Smith, now a prime candidate to fill a huge void in the 400m freestyle. Zane Grothe is the only American ranked in the top 20 in the world this year.

Smith, a 19-year-old from the University of Florida, took 2.29 seconds off his lifetime best on Thursday to jump from outside the top 10 to No. 2 in the U.S. on the year. Smith was already ranked No. 2 in the country in the 200m free.

Two more runners-up in the 50m freestyles — Erika Brown to Manuel and Zach Apple to Brazilian Bruno Fratus — lowered personal bests to move to No. 3 in each U.S. ranking list this year.

The U.S. Open continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET with live coverage on NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

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Nathan Chen distances Yuzuru Hanyu in Grand Prix Final short program

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A brilliant Nathan Chen outscored a flawed Yuzuru Hanyu for a fourth straight head-to-head program, taking a 12.95-point lead at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, on Thursday.

Chen, the two-time reigning world champion, tallied 110.38 points going into Saturday’s free skate. He landed a quadruple Lutz, triple Axel and quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination.

It’s the highest short program score in the world this season, leading the American to say “wow” in the kiss-and-cry area. His coach, the often-gruff Rafael Arutyunyan, banged his knee against his pupil’s.

Hanyu, the two-time reigning Olympic champion, hit a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel but then stepped out of a quad toe landing. He therefore failed to include a required jumping combination and ended up in second place.

“I wanted to do a great performance and do a good competition against [Chen], but that didn’t happen this time,” Hanyu, who was without longtime coach Brian Orser, or any other coach, said through a translator. Hanyu said Orser was busy last week, so he chose to use his lone accreditation on another coach who had travel delays.

Hanyu is not out of title contention. His world-leading free skate score this season is 16.61 points better than Chen’s best free skate from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Chen is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, but this is just his second head-to-head with Hanyu in that span. Chen defeated Hanyu at March’s world championships, where the Japanese megastar was likely affected by an ankle injury.

After Thursday’s program, Chen repeated what he said before the competition: he still feels like he’s chasing Hanyu.

“Yuzu is like the goat, he’s the greatest of all time, really,” Chen said. “So, to have this opportunity to be able to share the ice with a guy like that, someone that I’ve looked up to for a long time, someone that I’ve watched grow up through the junior ranks when I was like a baby, it’s really cool to be able see him now. It’s really cool to even just be able to see him person.”

The Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual event outside the world championships, continues Friday with the rhythm dance, women’s short and pairs’ free skate. A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

Earlier in pairs, Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong took their first step toward a first Grand Prix Final title. The Olympic silver medalists tallied 77.50, leading Russians Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy by .85 going into Friday’s free skate.

Sui and Han were imperfect, with Sui putting her hand down on a throw triple flip landing. They are undefeated in this Beijing Olympic cycle and own the world’s top total score this season.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the six-team Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years.

Grand Prix Final
Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 110.38
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 97.43
3. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 96.71
4. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 88.78
5. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 81.32
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 80.67

Pairs’ Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 77.50
2. Aleksandra Boikova / Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 76.65
3. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 75.16
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 71.48
5. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 69.67
6. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 67.08

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