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

Penny Oleksiak edges Simone Manuel, Regan Smith sizzles again in Knoxville

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Penny Oleksiak and Simone Manuel nearly duplicated their Olympic gold-medal tie. The Canadian Oleksiak edged Manuel by .03 in the 100m freestyle at a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sunday night.

Oleksiak clocked 53.41 seconds, coming back from .37 behind Manuel at the 50-meter mark. The two tied for the Rio Olympic title in an Olympic record 52.70 seconds four years ago. Oleksiak was the surprise, a 16-year-old who came into the Games ranked eighth in the world for the year.

Since, Manuel swept the 2017 and 2019 World titles. Oleksiak was sixth at 2017 Worlds and withdrew before the 100m free at 2019 Worlds. She ranked 21st in the world last year. Oleksiak’s time Sunday was her fastest since 2017.

Full Knoxville meet results are here. The Pro Series’ next stop is Des Moines from March 4-7.

In other events Sunday, world-record holder Regan Smith won the 200m backstroke in 2:05.94, the fastest time ever outside of a national championships or major international meet. Smith, 17, achieved the same feat on Saturday in the 100m back, where she also broke the world record at last summer’s worlds.

Madisyn Cox won a matchup of the three fastest U.S. women in the 200m individual medley in 2019. She clocked 2:09.88, beating Alex Walsh by a half-second and Melanie Margalis by .54.

It was Cox’s fastest time since she took bronze at the 2017 World Championships. She missed the 2019 Worlds after failing a 2018 drug test over what she said was a contaminated multivitamin.

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Mikaela Shiffrin among favorites eliminated early in parallel giant slalom

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Mikaela Shiffrin was upset in the round of 16 of the first World Cup parallel giant slalom by unheralded Frenchwoman Clara Direz, who went on to earn her first win on Sunday.

Shiffrin had the fastest qualifying time but was bounced in the second round of head-to-head racing in Sestriere by Direz. Direz, 24, came into the day with a best career finish of seventh.

Direz was 16th-fastest in qualifying, 1.02 seconds behind Shiffrin combining times from two runs. Direz edged Shiffrin by .13 in their head-to-head run. Shiffrin appeared to be at a disadvantage being put on the red course, which produced just three winners among 20 one-run matchups.

“It is fun; I think I like the parallel GS actually more than the parallel slalom, but it’s a little bit difficult,” Shiffrin said. “I think there’s still a lot of work we have to do, and FIS [the International Ski Federation] has to do to really make the race as even as it can be because for sure you can see, there’s always a faster course. But today it’s like they’re not even the same course at all. Especially in the last four, five gates on the blue course, you can even see just looking up the hill that it’s straighter than the red course.

“Today I would say it’s a day where the luck [of which course you draw randomly] really plays a role.”

Direz eventually beat Austrian Elisa Moerzinger in the final. Direz was on the blue course for three of her four one-run rounds. Full results are here.

Higher-ranked racers used to be have their choice of courses in the parallel format.

“Maybe that wasn’t fair, either, but I think there must be a way to make it something that is more even, but at the same time, yeah, I don’t really have the answers on how to do that, either,” Shiffrin said. “It’s still in its infancy, this event.”

Shiffrin has a track record of success in parallel slaloms and similar city events, winning five of her last six starts. But the parallel GS proved problematic for the world’s best in slalom.

Swiss Wendy Holdener and Slovakian Petra Vlhova were also eliminated before the quarterfinals after being second- and third-fastest in qualifying. Holdener was also on the red course. Vlhova lost in the round of 32, when skiers were taking runs on both the blue and red courses.

Sestriere marked the last weekend of technical races (slaloms/giant slaloms) until mid-February. The next three weekends feature downhills and super-Gs. Shiffrin is expected to travel to Bansko, Bulgaria, for the first set on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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