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U.S. cross-country skiers mark most successful world championships

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LAHTI, Finland (AP) — Think of a U.S. skiing medal contender for the Winter Olympics, and Lindsey Vonn or Bode Miller flying down the side of a mountain often come to mind. But now a tight-knit team is showing the United States can succeed in the grueling world of cross-country skiing, too.

The U.S. women’s cross-country ski team marked its most successful world championships in Finland with three medals from six events, raising hopes ahead of the 2018 Olympics.

While the team couldn’t end the championships with a medal in Saturday’s 30km freestyle, fifth place for Minnesota-born Jessie Diggins was another record-high finish for the U.S.

Diggins finished the championships with silver in the individual sprint and bronze in the team sprint, the latter honor remarkable because the race was strictly in classic style. This tends to favor European skiers, rather than the skate-skiing style which is the U.S. specialty.

Until eight years ago, the U.S. women’s team had never won a cross-country medal at the world championships, but now it’s a contender in almost every race.

Kikkan Randall, the pioneering U.S. medalist back in 2009, has mentored a new generation including Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen, who won bronze alongside Diggins in the team sprint. It’s a change from the days when Randall was the only standout U.S. cross-country skier.

“Before, I wished for teammates,” the 34-year-old Randall, who won individual sprint bronze last week, told The Associated Press. “Now it’s a challenge just to make our relay (team), everybody’s skiing so fast.”

It’s a success created in the wilds of Alaska, where the U.S. team often trains at Eagle Glacier, a spartan base reached by helicopter. Training and competing together year-round has forged a tight bond. Diggins says she considers her teammates her “big sisters.”

Historically, however, the Olympics have been a stumbling block for U.S. cross-country skiers. Randall was hotly favored for a sprint medal in 2014, but was eliminated in the quarterfinals. A silver medalist in 1976, Bill Koch was much hyped ahead of the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, but also failed to medal.

This time round the U.S. has new strength in depth as a team. Randall, who plans to retire after the PyeongChang Olympics, is aiming for a medal in one of the two team events.

“With the success we’ve had here,” she said, “I’m really excited about our chances next year.”

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Federica Brignone passes Mikaela Shiffrin for World Cup overall lead

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Italian Federica Brignone passed an absent Mikaela Shiffrin for the World Cup overall standings lead by winning a combined in Switzerland on Sunday.

Brignone prevailed by .92 of a second adding times from super-G and slalom runs in Crans-Montana. Full results are here.

Brignone moved 73 points ahead of Shiffrin in the overall through 29 of 40 scheduled races. A race winner receives 100 points on a descending scale through the 30th-place finisher. The season runs through March 22.

Shiffrin, the three-time reigning World Cup overall champion, has not competed since the unexpected death of her father on Feb. 2. She has not announced if or when she will return this season.

Brignone, 29, is having a career season with five wins and 10 podiums across four disciplines.

Brignone’s best previous World Cup overall standings finish was fifth. She earned giant slalom medals at the 2018 Olympics (bronze) and 2011 World Championships (silver).

She could become Italy’s first female World Cup overall champion. The last Italian male winner was Alberto Tomba in 1995.

The women’s Alpine skiing World Cup moves to La Thuile, Italy, for a super-G and a combined next Saturday and Sunday.

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Jade Carey on brink of becoming first gymnast to qualify for U.S. Olympic team

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The U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials aren’t until late June, but Jade Carey is in position to qualify for the Tokyo Games in March.

Carey, seeking an individual Olympic gymnastics spot outside of the team competition, earned the maximum points in a World Cup series that is one path to Olympic qualification.

Carey has three wins each on floor exercise and vault with two World Cups left in March. Carey will mathematically clinch an Olympic spot if no other gymnasts win three times on one of the apparatuses to force a tiebreaker.

So far, no other gymnast has two wins on floor. One gymnast has two wins on vault. A gymnast’s top three finishes across the eight-stop series count in Olympic qualifying. If Carey finishes atop the floor or vault standings, she goes to the Olympics.

Carey picked up those third wins on floor and vault at the sixth World Cup in Melbourne, Australia, this weekend.

The one downside to qualifying this route: Carey would not be able to compete in the team competition at the Olympics. Those four spots will be determined at and after June’s trials in St. Louis, with Simone Biles likely grabbing one of them.

“I knew I would be giving up being on the team,” Carey said in October of going the World Cup route, “but I think, for me, it made sense to just go for it.”

Carey is a world medalist on vault and floor, but she doesn’t have the all-around credentials of Biles and some other U.S. gymnasts.

Olympic team event roster sizes were cut from five to four for Tokyo, putting a greater onus on all-around prowess given a team must put three gymnasts on each apparatus in the Olympic final.

The U.S. is the deepest country in women’s gymnastics, so the only truly safe pick to make the four-woman Olympic team event roster is Biles.

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