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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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MORE: ‘Worst skier alive’ makes it to cross-country worlds after deportation

World Cup Alpine season opener gets green light

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After checking the snow on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria, FIS officials announced Thursday that the traditional World Cup season opener is set to go ahead as planned Oct. 26-27 with men’s and women’s giant slalom races.

Current conditions at Soelden show a solid 30 inches of snow at the summit. The race finishes at an altitude of 2,670 meters (8,760 feet), far above the currently snowless village.

The first races of the season are never guaranteed to have enough snow, though last year’s men’s race at Soelden had the opposite problem, being canceled when a storm blew through with heavy snowfall and high winds. 

France’s Tessa Worley won the women’s race last year ahead of Italy’s Frederica Brignone and U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who would go on to dominate the rest of the World Cup season.

The Soelden weekend is followed by three dormant weeks until the season resumes Nov. 23-24 in Levi, Finland. The World Cup circuits then switch to North America. The men will run speed events Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Lake Louise, Alberta, then head to Beaver Creek, Colo., for more speed events and a giant slalom Dec. 6-8. The women run slalom and giant slalom Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Killington, Vt., and head to Lake Louise the next weekend.

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Olympic marathon and race walk move from Tokyo to Sapporo draws some pushback

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In the wake of a dropout-plagued set of world championship endurance races in Qatar, moving the 2020 Olympic marathons and race walks from Tokyo to the cooler venue of Sapporo is a quick fix for one problem, pending the potential for untimely heat waves.

But the move has drawn some opposition for a variety of reasons.

First, many organizers and politicians appear to have been caught by surprise. Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, was “taken aback” and Sapporo’s mayor, Katsuhiro Akimoto, learned about the move from the media, Kyodo News reported. Koike even sarcastically suggested that the races could move all the way northward to islands disputed by Russia and Japan.

South African sports scientist Ross Tucker suggested that running in heat and humidity poses an interesting challenge for athletes, some of whom may be able to catch up with faster runners by preparing for the conditions.

British marathoner Mara Yamauchi made a similar point, saying the move was unfair to those who already were preparing for the heat, humidity and other conditions.

Belgian marathoner Koen Naert said he will make the best of the change but complained that some of his preparation and every runner’s logistical planning would no longer apply.

The angriest athlete may be Canadian walker Evan Dunfee, who placed fourth in the 2016 Olympic 50km race and nearly claimed bronze as a Canadian appeal was upheld but then rejected. He says runners and walkers can beat the conditions if they prepare, which many athletes did not do for the world championships in Qatar.

“So why do we cater to the ill prepared?” Dunfee asked on Twitter.

The move also takes athletes out of the main Olympic city and takes away the traditional, tough less frequent in modern years, finish in the Olympic stadium.

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