Luca Aerni’s surprise combined gold gives Swiss its best worlds in 26 years

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Swiss Luca Aerni didn’t know if he’d be racing the world championships super combined until Sunday night. He ended up winning gold, beating the world’s best skier by .01 on Monday.

Aerni became the third host-nation gold medalist in six races so far at worlds, edging World Cup overall champion Marcel Hirscher of Austria after downhill and slalom runs in St. Moritz. The unheralded Aerni was the last of four Swiss named to the super combined roster Sunday night.

Another Swiss, Mauro Caviezel, earned bronze, .06 behind, after missing all of the 2015-16 season due to injuries.

There are still five races left at worlds, but the Swiss already have their best medal haul in 26 years, since the tail end of their dominant era of the likes of Vreni Schneider and Pirmin Zurbriggen.

The top American was Bryce Bennett in 11th. The U.S. men haven’t had a top-10 in three worlds races so far.

FULL RESULTS | RACE REPLAY

Aerni, 23, was a complete surprise, the first Olympic or world champion without a World Cup podium to his name since 2007. He repeated the feat of Hirscher of two years ago, placing 30th in the morning downhill run and running first in the afternoon slalom en route to gold.

“I was really nervous the last 45 minutes waiting for everyone to finish,” said Aerni, who was 2.61 seconds behind after the downhill but 1.6 seconds faster than everyone in the slalom except Hirscher, who was .32 slower. “I could only watch and hope as the others came down. I knew my slalom run was good, but with the combined you never know what will happen. It was definitely a long wait until I realized I had the gold medal.”

Aerni’s best World Cup finish is fifth. He previously raced once at the Olympics and once at worlds, failing to finish each run.

Hirscher said he raced Monday after spending the previous two days sick in bed, according to SkiRacing.com.

“It is pretty impressive to myself that I am on the podium in this super combined,” he said, according to the report. “It was a little bit nerve-wracking if you see crossing the finish line one hundredth of a second behind.”

Like Aerni, Caviezel came in with a best World Cup finish of fifth and no prior Olympic or worlds medals.

The top three finishers overall also had the top three slalom times.

Pre-race favorite Alexis Pinturault of France was in decent position after the morning downhill, 1.46 seconds behind Austrian leader Romed Baumann, but uncharacteristically struggled in the slalom and wound up 10th. Pinturault remains the winningest men’s World Cup racer (19 victories) without an Olympic or world title. Baumann ended up 12th.

Earlier at worlds, Wendy Holdener won the women’s combined and Beat Feuz took the men’s downhill for Switzerland. The Swiss earned one world title total among the 2011, 2013 and 2015 Worlds.

The World Championships continue with the team event, a new Olympic event, on Tuesday at 6 a.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

MORE: Alpine Worlds broadcast schedule

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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