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Men’s Alpine skiing season storylines

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Three storylines for the Olympic men’s Alpine skiing season ahead of Sunday’s World Cup opener in Soelden, Austria …

1. Marcel Hirscher’s comeback

The Austrian had been on such a roll — a record six straight World Cup overall titles — that he looked like a contender for four gold medals in PyeongChang (slalom, giant slalom, super combined and team event).

Then, on Aug. 17, Hirscher broke his left ankle in training (video here). It’s Hirscher’s first major injury since he became the world’s best skier in 2012, and it comes less than six months before what should be the last Olympics of his prime.

He’s likely out until December, missing the opening technical races of the season in Soelden and Levi, Finland, on Nov. 12. Hirscher has been so strong that he would have won the overall title the last two seasons if one excludes his points from Soelden and Levi.

So a seventh straight overall title is still possible, but it just got more difficult. Combine that with the pressure on Hirscher this season to deliver his first Olympic gold medal come February. It may well be a legacy-defining season for him.

“The only thing I can do next season is [lose],” Hirscher said in March, via NBC Olympic research. “Because if I’m finishing second, in the Austrian press, it would be a disaster.”

2. The men out to dethrone Hirscher

If there is a new overall champion this year, it could be any type of racer.

In the last two seasons, three very different skiers made up Nos. 2-4 in the final standings, within an average of fewer than 100 points of each other — France’s Alexis Pinturault and Norwegians Kjetil Jansrud and Henrik Kristoffersen.

Come February, they will be vying for medals in different Olympic events, but until then all chase the World Cup overall.

Pinturault fits the mold the best. He’s 26, a prime age, and an all-around racer capable of winning giant slaloms and combineds while making the top 10 in slalom and super-G. He won four races last season, breaking Jean-Claude Killy‘s record for World Cup victories by a Frenchman.

Jansrud and Kristoffersen are opposites. Jansrud, 32, has succeeded the injury-plagued Aksel Lund Svindal as Norway’s downhill king. Kristoffersen, 23, emerged as Hirscher’s biggest slalom rival in this Olympic cycle.

If Pinturault is strong across the board, it’s unlikely that Jansrud and Kristoffersen can rack up enough points in speed and technical events, respectively, to challenge him.

3. State of the United States

The Americans are at risk of leaving the Winter Games without a men’s Alpine medal for the first time since 1998.

In 2016, the U.S. men went a calendar year without a World Cup win in any discipline for the first time since 1999. (Travis Ganong broke that skid in January, but on the same day that three-time Olympian Steven Nyman suffered a season-ending crash.)

Olympic giant slalom champion Ted Ligety hasn’t won in two years, his last two seasons cut short by myriad injuries.

The next three months will be key. Ligety will try to re-establish himself as Mr. GS, beginning Sunday in Soelden.

Nyman, the top American downhiller since Sochi, suffered a complete tear to his MCL and PCL and a partial tear to his ACL on Jan. 27. At 35, he’s not much older than the top European speed racers. It’s not out of the question that, once he returns to the World Cup circuit, he can join the Olympic medal conversation.

Ganong, 29, went more than one year between top-five finishes on the World Cup before winning that downhill on Jan. 27.

He has excelled enough on the big stage — fifth in his Olympic debut in the Sochi downhill and downhill silver at the 2015 Worlds — to contend in PyeongChang even if he doesn’t impress in the lead-up races.

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Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

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Mikaela Shiffrin nearly makes it three-way tie for World Cup win

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Mikaela Shiffrin came .01 shy of making it a three-way tie for a World Cup giant slalom win on Saturday, confirming GS has been the most up-for-grabs discipline for either gender in recent years.

Shiffrin, beaten in her last two slaloms, had the fastest second run to place third behind co-winners Italian Federica Brignone and Slovakian Petra Vlhova in Sestriere, Italy. The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion in the GS rallied from fourth place and .42 behind after the first run.

Shiffrin still leads the World Cup overall standings by 233 points over Vlhova. The American last won Dec. 29. Though she made the podium in three of her four races since, Shiffrin expressed a lack of confidence heading into this weekend’s races at the 2006 Olympic venue.

“The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, like, are you unbeatable?” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races last season and has four victories nearly halfway through this season, tied with Vlhova for most on tour. “I feel really good in GS. It’s just been a long time since [the last GS on Dec. 28].”

Vlhova earned her third victory this month after beating Shiffrin those last two slaloms. Brignone leads the GS season standings by 61 points over Shiffrin, seeking to become the sixth different woman to win that discipline title in the last six years. There are four more GS races left this season.

It’s the second straight season with a World Cup GS tie. Last Feb. 1, Shiffrin and Vlhova tied in Maribor, Slovenia.

It’s the first time the top three finishers were separated by such a small margin since the last three-way tie for a win in 2006, when Lindsey VonnMichaela Dorfmeister and Nadia Styger had the same super-G time, and fourth-place Kelly VanderBeek was .01 behind.

“Last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side, too,” said Shiffrin, who had three victories by .16 or tighter last season.

World Cup racing continues with a parallel giant slalom on Sunday at 5:45 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold.

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