Five takeaways from World Alpine Skiing Championships

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Five thoughts after an unpredictable world alpine skiing championships, looking ahead to the Olympics … 

1. Expect Mikaela Shiffrin to be busier in PyeongChang

Shiffrin chose not to enter the super-G or super combined in the first week at worlds, in order to maximize her medal potential in the giant slalom and slalom in the final weekend. It paid off with silver and gold medals.

It seems unlikely that Shiffrin adopts the same, two-race slate in PyeongChang. The 2018 Olympic schedule has the giant slalom and slalom in the first week, followed by the speed events of super-G, downhill and super combined.

Consider also Shiffrin’s mindset going into St. Moritz.

“Right now, I’m going with [only giant slalom and slalom] because I just don’t think that I have quite enough experience in speed [events] to be able to count on winning a medal in those events yet,” she said. “But by the time we go to South Korea next year, maybe I could. I might be in a position where I can at least be in contention for medals in giant slalom, slalom, combined, super-G and maybe even downhill, only because nobody’s ever skied on that track before.”

The women get their first look at the 2018 Olympic venue with World Cup races in two weeks, a downhill and super-G. Shiffrin said before worlds that she planned to travel to South Korea for training but to leave before the races start. She wanted to prioritize the following week’s World Cup giant slalom and slalom in Squaw Valley, Calif.

What’s for sure is we can learn plenty about Shiffrin’s Olympic potential in speed events this weekend. She’s set to race at the World Cup stop in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, which is made up of two combineds and a super-G.

If Shiffrin enters all three events, it will bring her career World Cup start total in downhill, super-G and combined up to 10 races. Her best finish in her first seven starts was fourth in a super-G last month.

“I have a lot of goals there,” Shiffrin said of speed events after bagging her third straight slalom world title Saturday. “Hopefully, some day, I’d like to win in super-G and downhill, but I think it’ll take some time before I can do that consistently. It’s definitely a long road from here. I still feel like I just started.”

2. Lindsey Vonn must heal

Vonn made it clear at worlds that she wasn’t 100 percent recovered from breaking her right upper arm in a Nov. 10 training crash. Her right hand movement was so limited that she couldn’t put her hair in a ponytail, let alone comfortably grip a ski pole at 75 miles per hour.

After skiing out of the opening super-G, troubled by that hand, she duct-taped her glove to her ski pole, placed fifth in the super combined and third in the downhill. She said the bronze medal felt like gold given her latest injury comeback.

Vonn became the oldest woman to earn a world championships medal. In PyeongChang, she can become the oldest woman to earn an Olympic Alpine medal.

Vonn’s biggest hurdle is her own health. A smooth finish to the season, regardless of wins, and a normal offseason is key.

“I want to be in a position at the Olympics where I’m at my top form not just struggling to kind of make it back into the mix,” Vonn said, according to The Associated Press. “It’s a different ballgame when I’m prepared.”

3. U.S. lacks young stars

Worlds went about to form for the entire U.S. team. Shiffrin and Vonn were the only medalists. No man placed in the top 10 for the first time since 1997.

Injuries and, especially, aging are the concerns.

Four-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso, out since November 2015 hip surgery, was on the team but didn’t enter any events. The top U.S. men on the World Cup in recent seasons, Ted Ligety and Steven Nyman, went out with season-ending injuries in January. Bode Miller, who has trained but not raced this season, was in the NBC Sports commentary booth.

All of them are 32 years and older. Maybe some summon one last Olympic medal surge next year, but what about after that?

Shiffrin is the only American younger than age 28 who owns a World Cup victory. U.S. men earned Youth Olympic and junior worlds gold medals last year, but they look destined for 2022.

4. Marcel Hirscher approaches Austrian legends

Hirscher was the best skier in St. Moritz, despite reportedly spending days in bed before his first race. He earned two golds and missed a third by .01 in the super combined.

Only Tony Sailer owns more individual world titles among Austrian men. Hirscher is en route to his sixth straight World Cup overall title this season, which no man from any country has accomplished.

He’s at 43 World Cup wins, 11 shy of the Austrian men’s mark held by Hermann Maier. At 27 years old, Hirscher ought to eclipse it.

But Hirscher’s résumé has a gaping hole — no Olympic gold medal. He was upset in the Sochi Olympic slalom by countryman Mario Matt. And there’s no certainty Hirscher will be a favorite in PyeongChang.

For years, he was the world’s second-best giant slalom skier behind the now-injured Ligety, who could reclaim the throne next season, though that is a tall order.

In slalom, young Norwegian Henrik Kristoffersen has been neck and neck with Hirscher but had a poor worlds.

The super combined is the most unpredictable event, but even there Frenchman Alexis Pinturault has won six of the 11 World Cup races since 2013.

5. Surprises in St. Moritz

Most races provided surprise medalists.

In all five men’s events, either the gold or silver medalist had not won a World Cup race in at least two years (or, in three cases, never made a World Cup podium). Women’s medalists in downhill, super-G, giant slalom and the super combined had never won a World Cup race.

New names were going to emerge regardless, considering the list of recent stars not racing (retired Tina Maze, Ligety, Miller, Aksel Lund Svindal) and those who did compete but were slowed or forced out by injury (Vonn, Anna Veith, Gut).

More surprises could be in store in PyeongChang given, as Shiffrin said, it’s a new track for everybody.

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Noah Lyles, Michael Norman, green teens at Olympic Trials, now stars

Noah Lyles, Michael Norman
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Noah Lyles remembers all of it. Michael Norman is a little hazy on the details.

Even if they compete in different sprints (as they are at this week’s USATF Outdoor Championships), Lyles and Norman will always be linked by the 2016 Olympic Trials 200m final.

Both 18-year-olds. Both racing in high school singlets. Neither was expected to contend for the U.S. Olympic team at the start of the 10-day meet. But each won his 200m semifinal at Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus two years ago.

The next day, the top three men in the 200m final would make the U.S. Olympic team. Lyles and Norman conversed in the call room before the race.

“Talking about how we were just doing this last year,” Lyles said, referencing his 200m win over Norman in the 2015 U.S. Junior Championships, also at Hayward. “I can’t believe we’re here, high schoolers, trying to bring a whole new generation.”

They entered the stadium.

“I remember walking down the track,” Lyles continued. “I can’t remember which race was going on, but I remember seeing Galen Rupp there, so it had to be the 5000m [it was, and perhaps the greatest race of the meet]. I remember everybody going wild for the distance race. All the people slamming on the front of the stands. Just starting to get hyped.”

Norman settled in lane six. Lyles in lane four. The starter’s gun fired.

“I remember running at the end,” Lyles said. “I had no idea what place I was in. I just saw LaShawn [Merritt] and Justin [Gatlin, a pair of Olympic champions] in front of me. That’s all that I saw, so I was really hoping I got third.”

Lyles didn’t see Ameer Webb in lane seven. Webb got third in 20.00 behind Gatlin and Merritt. Lyles was fourth in 20.09 (a national high school record). Norman was fifth in 20.14 (personal best).

Lyles and Norman just missed becoming the youngest U.S. man to make an Olympic track and field team in 32 years. Both left Eugene satisfied, though.

“That would be the only opportunity that both me and Noah Lyles will be able to go into the Olympic Trials with zero expectations and zero pressure,” Norman said this week.

Lyles and Norman are already U.S. Championships headliners at the midpoint of this Olympic cycle. Part of that is due to the absences of Gatlin, Merritt and Christian Coleman. But also what Lyles and Norman have done since those Olympic Trials.

USATF Outdoors: TV Schedule | Entries | Women’s Preview | Men’s Preview

Lyles is a co-favorite in Friday’s 100m, a complementary event for a man who signed a reported eight-year contract with Adidas shortly after the Olympic Trials.

The 5-foot-10, 160-pound Lyles is the son of Seton Hall track and field athletes. His first Olympic memory is watching Usain Bolt‘s record-breaking performances at the 2008 Beijing Games. He ran in R2-D2 socks on May 4, is a sneaker artist, dancer and Lego lover and apparently has “ICON” tattooed on his side.

Since Olympic Trials, Lyles is undefeated in outdoor 200m races. He broke 20 seconds in May 2017 but suffered a hamstring tear during that race and withdrew during the U.S. Championships the next month. He watched the August world championships from his Florida home, then beat the surprise world champion Ramil Guliyev at the Diamond League final three weeks later.

This year, Lyles set personal bests in the 100m (9.93, .02 off the fastest in the world this year) and 200m (19.69, tied for fastest in the world this year) and ran the fastest indoor 300m of all time.

Norman is expected to win Sunday’s 200m in his first meet since announcing he would turn professional after the NCAA Championships. Norman is forgoing his final two years at the University of Southern California.

The 6-foot-2, 175-pound Norman also has former college runners as parents. His dad went to Ball State, then transferred to a junior college before joining the Navy. His mom said she was once the fastest Japanese middle school 100m runner of all time. Norman has no evidence, but he has seen pictures.

Like Lyles, Norman’s first Olympic memory was Bolt in 2008. He races in a headband after being inspired by 2015 World 100m bronze medalist Trayvon Bromell. Norman has “22” in his social media handles because it shares a keyboard piece with the @ symbol.

Norman was also slowed by injuries in that post-Olympic Trials season as he became primarily a 400m runner at USC.

Shin splints. A stress reaction in his back. A hamstring strain that he reinjured in practice five weeks later. Norman did compete at the 2017 U.S. Championships, but not at full fitness, and finished seventh, missing the world championships 4x400m pool by one spot. He said this week is about “self redemption.”

Norman’s sophomore year at USC was a healthy one. Norman broke the 400m indoor record on March 10. He has taken .99 of a second off his outdoor 400m personal best, winning the NCAA title in 43.61. That’s the fastest time in the world since Wayde van Niekerk‘s world record 43.03 at the Rio Olympics. Norman is now the sixth-fastest 400m runner ever.

“I see myself as both a 200m and 400m runner,” said Norman, who hasn’t raced the 200m at a significant meet since winning the world U20 title two weeks after the Olympic Trials.

Norman and Lyles chose to room together at the 2016 World U20 Championships in Poland. They joked who would be put on the 4x400m relay (Norman led off, Lyles anchored, and the U.S. beat Japan by .08). Unlike trials, Norman has a better memory of the experience.

“Before [Lyles] raced his 100m final, he was talking to a sports psychologist,” he said. “I didn’t really know that people did that.”

Norman also remembers that Lyles is 2-0 in their all-time head to head. They could have raced this week, but Lyles chose the 100m. They are both entered in a 200m at a Diamond League meet in Lausanne on July 5.

“That’s one of my huge goals for the year, race Noah Lyles,” Norman said at the Olympic Trials.

They haven’t raced against each other since that day in Eugene. Norman had a dry-erase board at his USC dorm room on which he scribbled goals,. Though he never wrote anything about Lyles, he is certainly looking forward to their next meeting.

“It brings some more light to the sport, having rivalries like this may pique other people’s interest,” said Norman, who has gone about a year without ice cream but will indulge a Baked Bear double-decker ice-cream sandwich at the end of the season. “As long as it doesn’t become a negative, where we’re not conversing or being friendly, it will be beneficial to track and both of our careers.”

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Five men’s events to watch at USATF Outdoor Championships

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The featured men’s events at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships have a bit of everything.

Dominance from Olympic medalists Ryan Crouser (shot put) and Paul Chelimo (5000m). Promise in the form of Noah Lyles (100m), Michael Norman (200m) and Grant Holloway (110m hurdles). Overcoming adversity — Matthew Centrowitz (1500m) and Clayton Murphy (800m).

A Lyles-Norman showdown in the 200m would have enough spice to headline this meet on its own, but Lyles decided against the double. That enhances the likelihood that the biggest story in Des Moines could come from one of many events on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

There is no Olympic or world championships team to qualify for this year, which is why established stars like Justin GatlinChristian Coleman and LaShawn Merritt are out.

But their absences could yield the emergence of first-time national champions. Just look at 2014, when that list included Tianna BartolettaKori CarterJeff HendersonSam Kendricks and Joe Kovacs, all of whom have since won Olympic or world titles.

USATF Outdoors: TV Schedule | Entries | Women’s Preview | Men’s Preview

Five men’s events to watch this week:

100m (Final — Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET, Olympic Channel, NBC Sports Gold)
World gold and silver medalists Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman are missing, but two more impressive sprinters this outdoor season go head-to-head. Noah Lyles, who finished fourth in the 200m at the 2016 Olympic Trials at age 18 and is since undefeated in that event, drops down for his first 100m at a major meet as a professional. Lyles has the joint-fastest 200m in the world this year. He chose the 100m this week for two reasons — he can improve more in the 100m than the 200m over three rounds and to try something different given his race schedule the rest of the summer is tailored for the 200m. Lyles is forgoing a matchup with Michael Norman in the 200m this week, but he should have his hands full with Ronnie Baker. Baker, who grew up running cross-country and avoiding the moose in Alaska, has been the most impressive American in the 100m this year. Baker beat a slightly injured Coleman at consecutive Diamond League meets in May and, with favorable wind, should improve on his personal best of 9.93 and overtake the fastest time in the world this year (Zharnel Hughes‘ 9.91). As should Lyles, who also has a personal best of 9.93.

Shot Put (Saturday, 3:45 p.m. ET, NBC, NBC Sports Gold)
All four men from Rio and the 2017 Worlds are here, including Olympic gold and silver medalists Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs. Crouser, whose father, two uncles and two cousins were elite throwers, has won 13 of his last 14 head-to-heads with Kovacs, who was taught to throw by his mom in his Pennsylvania high-school parking lot. Crouser also won his last 13 of 14 head-to-heads with Rio Olympian Darrell Hill, according to Tilastopaja.org. Crouser also has the top 23 throws by an American this year out of his 24 total legal throws in 2018 competition, according to Tilastopaja.

1500m (Final — Saturday, 5:40 p.m. ET, NBC)
Is Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz vulnerable? He was upset at nationals last year by Robby Andrews. Centrowitz revealed afterward that he competed on 10 days of training after a series of health problems that included an emergency-room visit with a viral infection. Then at worlds, a listless Centrowitz finished last in his first-round heat and said he was unable to get more than two straight weeks of healthy training all season. The 28-year-old heads into Des Moines ranked behind Andrews and Johnny Gregorek on best times this season. At last month’s Pre Classic, Centrowitz was beaten by a countryman (Olympic 800m bronze medalist Clayton Murphy, not racing the 1500m this week) at a major race at Hayward Field for the first time in five years.

800m (Final — Sunday, 4:13 p.m. ET, NBC)
Maybe the deepest field at nationals. The six fastest Americans since the start of 2016 are here. Clayton Murphy took bronze at the Rio Olympics but withdrew during 2017 Nationals with sore hamstrings and missed worlds. Boris Berian went from flipping burgers at McDonald’s to winning the 2016 World Indoor title and placing second at the Olympic Trials. He didn’t race at all in 2017 (Achilles) and ranks 186th in the U.S. this year. Donavan Brazier won the 2017 U.S. title and 2018 U.S. Indoor title at age 20 but hasn’t raced outdoors this year. Drew Windle took silver at world indoors on March 3. NCAA champion Isaiah Harris and Erik Sowinski are the fastest Americans this outdoor season.

110m Hurdles (Final — Sunday, 5:52 p.m. ET, NBC)
An intergenerational group with 2012 Olympic champion and world-record holder Aries Merritt, 2016 Olympic Trials winner Devon Allen and Grant Holloway, a rising University of Florida junior who won all four NCAA hurdles titles his first two years and ranks second in the world this season. Merritt underwent a kidney transplant in 2015, then missed the 2016 Olympic team by .01 and missed a national title in 2017 by .07 behind Aleec Harris (who is also in this field). Allen, the former University of Oregon wide receiver, looked primed to break 13 seconds after he won the trials in 13.03, but that remains his personal best. Holloway clocked his personal best of 13.15 on May 13 and is the only American to break 13.20 this year. It’s been nearly three years since an American broke 13 seconds, the longest drought in more than two decades.

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