U.S. Alpine director set to lobby ski officials to let Lindsey Vonn race men

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An item high on Lindsey Vonn‘s priority list — competing against the men.

She’s lobbying hard for such a chance, but so far the International Ski Federation (FIS) has yet to sign off.

U.S. Alpine director Patrick Riml said he will push for rules alterations at the FIS meetings in May to possibly give Vonn and other female skiers that opportunity down the road.

“All the men say, ‘We don’t think she’s going to beat us,’ which is what they’re going to say, and also that, ‘It will be great for our sport,”‘ Vonn said. “So, what’s the harm?

“Hopefully, we’re able to accomplish it before I retire.”

The U.S. Ski Team’s proposal would bid for Vonn to be able to race against men in November 2018, according to the Denver Post in January.

“I know I’m not going to win, but I would like to at least have the opportunity to try,” Vonn said then, according to the newspaper. “I think I’ve won enough World Cups where I should have enough respect within the industry to be able to have that opportunity.”

Vonn’s idea has been to race in Lake Louise, Canada, an annual late fall stop on both the men’s and women’s World Cup schedules. The men generally race in Lake Louise one week before the women do.

Vonn’s greatest success has come at Lake Louise, with 18 victories in 41 downhill and super-G starts dating to 2001.

Vonn previously requested in 2012 to be able to race against men in Lake Louise, but that was denied by the International Ski Federation (FIS). The federation said then “that one gender is not entitled to participate in races of the other.”

“You can set up a day where a female racer can compete against men racers, just as a show, but it has nothing to do with competition,” FIS women’s race director Atle Skaardal said, according to the Denver Post in January. “I don’t see that it’s going to change in the next years — no driving forces to urge a change like that. This is something the teams could do also in training. But why would you want to have a competition in this direction?

“I just don’t see the interest. For me it’s a meaningless comparison. It doesn’t matter if she’s one second behind or a half-second ahead. We compete female against female and men against men. To me it doesn’t matter if one gender is faster or slower. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, just because it’s of interest to one racer. I haven’t heard of any other sport being dragged into this kind of position.”

Vonn must focus on the Olympic season before thinking about preparing to race men.

Always the consummate planner, she has every detail scribbled in a calendar from now until her season starts in November. Workouts, upcoming trips, ski camps, appointments – all of the ordinary stuff.

The bigger-ticket items? Now those are simply memorized. In the twilight of her career, the four-time overall World Cup champion has a priority list of aspirations before even thinking of stepping away:

– Break Ingemar Stenmark‘s wins record (once thought untouchable).

– “Defend” her downhill crown at the Winter Olympics in South Korea (she didn’t get that chance in Sochi because of a knee injury).

– Compete against the men.

“I’m not going to stop until I reach my goals,” Vonn said. “There’s too much I have left to accomplish.”

At the moment, her plan is to race at least through the 2018-19 season — health willing, of course.

But right now, the 32-year-old Vonn feels, knock on wood, quite healthy. She hasn’t been able to say that very often.

A quick glance at her medical chart: Bruised hip in training crash before Olympics (2006), sliced right thumb on champagne bottle while celebrating a victory (2009), severely bruised shin (2010), serious knee injuries (2013-14), broken left ankle (2015) and fractures near her left knee joint in a crash (2016).

Most recently, she broke her right arm in a November training run. It required surgery and led to nerve damage so severe she could hardly wiggle her fingers at first and had to tape the ski pole to her glove in order to race. She’s still trying to recover full sensation.

“All the obstacles I’ve faced, it makes me appreciate things that much more,” Vonn said in a recent interview as she hosted a camp in Denver designed to empower girls to reach their goals. “But I can’t worry about injuries. If you worry about it, you’re always going to ski scared.”

That’s never been an issue with Vonn.

“There are a lot of athletes who achieve amazing results and when they get hurt, especially multiple times, they ask themselves, ‘Is it worth it?”‘ Riml said. “Her hunger to become a better athlete and win more races is as big as it was when she was 20 years old.

“Her determination, her drive to become better, to win more races, it’s unbelievable.”

Vonn has a number in mind – 86. That’s how many World Cup wins Stenmark accumulated during the Swedish great’s extraordinary career. Vonn is currently at 77.

“If I ended my career today, I’d still be really satisfied with what I’ve done,” said Vonn , who broke Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell‘s women’s record of 62 World Cup wins in January 2015. “But I think to beat a record like his [Stenmark], it would be very significant.”

These days, everything is geared toward the Winter Olympics in South Korea. After capturing downhill gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games, she missed the Sochi Games because of a knee injury.

“My main goal is to defend or repeat – I don’t know what you call it,” she joked.

Vonn raced on the Olympic course in early March, finishing second in both the downhill and super-G. In Pyeongchang next February, she said she will compete in the downhill, super-G, giant slalom and the combined, but skip the slalom.

According to her crammed calendar, this recent block of time was reserved for rest. She and her boyfriend, Kenan Smith, a former assistant wide receivers coach for the Los Angeles Rams, recently escaped to the beach in the Turks and Caicos Islands .

Soon on her to-do list, test out new Head skis and boots in Europe. Vonn’s been hurt so much that she really hasn’t had a chance to try out the latest equipment.

“I need to get up to date,” Vonn said. “I know that if I can fine-tune some of the details, I can find some more time in my racing.”

That will certainly come in handy against a crop of talented skiers that includes freshly minted World Cup overall champion Mikaela Shiffrin, who grew up holding Vonn in high esteem, the same way Vonn did with 1998 super-G Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street.

“There’s clearly no one out there in the technical disciplines, especially the slalom, that’s on Mikaela’s level,” said Vonn, who lives in Vail, Colorado. “She’s had an incredible career so far.”

One day Shiffrin could be chasing Vonn’s marks. At 22, Shiffrin already has 31 World Cup wins. For a comparison, Vonn had four at the same age.

“It would be great if Mikaela’s able to break it,” said Vonn, whose foundation partnered with “ZGirls” to host confidence-building programs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MORE: Shiffrin’s best season also brought the most anxiety

John McFall, Paralympic medalist, becomes first parastronaut in Europe

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The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident to be among its newest batch of astronauts — a leap toward its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and later won a Paralympic 100m bronze medal in 2008, called his selection at Europe’s answer to NASA “a real turning point and mark in history.”

“ESA has a commitment to send an astronaut with a physical disability into space … This is the first time that a space agency has endeavored to embark on a project like this. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” he said.

The newly-minted parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris news conference — the conclusion of the agency’s first recruitment drive in over a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

McFall will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts because he will participate in a groundbreaking feasibility study exploring whether physical disability will impair space travel. It’s uncharted land, since no major Western space agency has ever put a parastronaut into space, according to the ESA.

Speaking with pride amid flashes of emotion, McFall said that he was uniquely suited to the mission because of the vigor of his mind and body.

“I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I lost my leg about twenty plus years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally … All those factors and hardships in life have given me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to,” he added.

“I never dreamt of being an astronaut. It was only when ESA announced that they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability to embark on this project that it really sparked my interest.”

The feasibility study, that will last two to three years, will examine the basic hurdles for a parastronaut including how a physical disability might impact mission training, and if modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required, for example.

ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said it was still a “long road” for McFall but described the fresh recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there that are almost superhuman in that they’ve already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?”

Parker also says that he “thinks” it may be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I do not claim ownership.”

“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first parastronaut, that means someone who has been selected by the regular astronaut selection process but happens to have a disability that would normally have ruled him out,” he said.

It will be at least five years before McFall goes into space as an astronaut — if he is successful.

Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the American agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remains the same” but said the agency is looking forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.

NASA stressed that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting future astronauts who might be put in life-threatening situations.

“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements call for each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be aggravated by, spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot added.

NASA said future “assistive technology” might change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.

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Ilia Malinin in familiar position after Grand Prix Finland short program

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Ilia Malinin landed a quadruple Axel in his free skate to win his first two competitions this season. Less known was that the 17-year-old American had to come from behind to win each time.

An at least slightly injured Malinin looks up in the standings again after the short program of his third event, Grand Prix Finland. Malinin had erred landings on two of his three jumping passes in Friday’s short, where quad Axels are not allowed, then said he had a left foot problem, according to the International Skating Union.

“I’m a little bit injured, I’m playing it safe, protect it to make sure the injury doesn’t get worse,” he said, according to the ISU.

He tallied 85.57 points for second place, which is 3.39 fewer than leader Kevin Aymoz of France going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin, the world junior champion ranked No. 1 in the world in his first full senior season, merely needs to finish fourth or better (perhaps even fifth) to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, which pits the top six per discipline in the world in a preview of March’s world championships.

Grand Prix Finland concludes with all of the free skates on Saturday.

GRAND PRIX FINLAND: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier Friday, world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium led the women’s short with 74.88 points, edging Mai Mihara of Japan by 1.3. Hendrickx and Mihara are in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. World champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, South Korea’s Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito already have spots in the Final.

The world’s top ice dance couple this season, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, improved on their world-leading rhythm dance score by tallying 87.80 points. They lead Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker by 6.87, with both couples in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini topped the pairs’ short program by 4.3 points over Americans Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia. The Italians rank fourth in the world this season behind three teams that aren’t in the Finland field but will be at the Grand Prix Final, including world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S.

Smirnova and Silanytsia are competing in their lone Grand Prix this season after withdrawing before Skate America, making them ineligible for Grand Prix Final qualification. Their short program score ranks fourth among American pairs this season, putting them in contention for one of three spots on the team for worlds, to be decided after January’s national championships.

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