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Mikaela Shiffrin chases higher goals as second Olympics approach

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After the finale of the 73-race World Cup Alpine skiing season in March, the winners of the men’s and women’s overall titles were brought together. They were handed crystal globe trophies and directed to pose for the cameras.

Those winners were Austrian Marcel Hirscher, who actually won crystal globes for the overall, giant slalom and slalom disciplines. And Mikaela Shiffrin, who took two crystal globes, for the overall and slalom.

It made for a very crowded photo shoot.

“He’s trying to juggle three different trophies,” Shiffrin (who actually learned to juggle and unicycle in elementary school) said in the spring, leading into this joke: “There’s nothing like standing next to Marcel Hirscher to make me feel like I didn’t do enough this season.”

She did plenty.

The Coloradoan clinched her first overall crown — the biggest annual prize in ski racing — four days after her 22nd birthday, making her the youngest champion in 14 years.

She became the fifth American to take the overall title since it was introduced in 1967 and won 11 of her 25 World Cup starts.

But Shiffrin always wants more.

In Sochi, in the early morning, bleary hours after becoming the youngest Olympic slalom champion, Shiffrin blurted out in a press conference that she dreamed of winning five gold medals in 2018.

She’s not retracting those words now. Five gold medals are certainly possible, though extremely improbable. The most gold medals any Alpine skier has won at a single Olympics is three.

“I believe in my ability, and I have a team around me that also believes in my ability, which allows me to stand behind that statement even if it was almost ignorant in a way,” Shiffrin said at a U.S. Olympic Committee media summit in Park City, Utah, two weeks ago.

The believers also included President Barack Obama, who embarrassed the skier by mentioning the five golds comment in front of more than 100 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes at the Team USA White House visit after the Sochi Winter Games.

“It’s not all supposed to be saying, like, undervaluing what the other athletes are able to do, because there are a couple of other athletes out there who also could win in five events,” Shiffrin said.

Realistically, Shiffrin does not see five individual golds in PyeongChang. She’s targeting three, maybe four events.

Slalom, where she can become the first man or woman to repeat as Olympic champion.

Giant slalom, where Shiffrin finished fifth in Sochi and improved to a silver medal at the world championships last February.

Super combined. Shiffrin did not race the combined in Sochi (one downhill run plus one slalom run) but won her first World Cup combined last season (albeit a super-G, rather than downhill, and slalom).

Super-G is a maybe. Shiffrin has never won a super-G but will race it in PyeongChang if she can make the four-woman U.S. team and feels comfortable.

Downhill is unlikely. Shiffrin raced her first two World Cup downhills last season but does not consider herself a speed racer. Plus, the U.S. team is loaded with accomplished women in the event — Lindsey VonnJulia MancusoLaurenne RossJackie Wiles and Stacey Cook. Only four starting spots are available.

“If I can compete in four events, it’s because I think I have shot to win a medal in four events,” Shiffrin said in Park City. “Five might be biting off too much even though I did go on record saying I want five gold medals, I want the world and the king of the universe and all those things last Olympics.”

The focus first is on the World Cup, which begins with the traditional season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, two weeks from Saturday.

It will be a key indicator for one of Shiffrin’s next short-term goals — to become best in the world in giant slalom. Last season, only Tessa Worley of France was better than Shiffrin.

If she can wrestle the crown away from Worley this fall and winter, and retain her slalom and overall titles, Shiffrin will be the one juggling three crystal globes at photo shoots.

Those World Cup trophies, earned through five months of results, are better indicators of superiority than Olympic medals. They’re also several pounds heavier.

“The Olympic gold, it’s a really big event, but that race in it of itself, one gold medal, just means the same thing as a World Cup [race] win,” Shiffrin said in the spring. “You’re the best for that day. And then the next day that could change.”

Shiffrin could become the first woman since Swede Anja Paerson in 2004 to win the overall, giant slalom and slalom World Cup titles in one year. If she achieves that, it might be on to the next goal.

“Right now my impossible is winning races in every event in a single season,” she said in the spring.

Four skiers have done that — wins in downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom and combined in one season — Marc GirardelliPetra KronbergerJanica Kostelic and Tina Maze.

“I’m chasing that,” Shiffrin said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get there.”

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

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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