Mikaela Shiffrin, powered by Instagram message, second in Killington (video)

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Mikaela Shiffrin, after finishes of fifth, second and second in her first three races this season, an uplifting Instagram message and listening to Eminem all day — had this to say:

“I feel like I’m chasing a little bit,” she said after a runner-up in a World Cup giant slalom in Killington, Vt. “Today was definitely a better performance, but I still feel like I’m chasing, which is, actually, my favorite place to be because I feel less like I have to perform and more like I’m doing it for myself.”

That may seem unusual for the reigning World Cup overall champion, a 22-year-old who dominated slalom the last several years.

But Shiffrin is facing new challenges. She was beaten in her last two slaloms by Slovakian Petra Vlhova, who is three months younger.

On Saturday, German Viktoria Rebensburg won her second straight giant slalom. The 2010 Olympic GS champion also prevailed in the season’s first race in Soelden, Austria, in October, after going winless last season.

Shiffrin, the No. 2 GS skier in the world last season, ended up .67 of a second behind Rebensburg after two runs in front of some 18,000 people.

Rebensburg led by .26 over Shiffrin after the morning run and also had the fastest afternoon run by .32.

Shiffrin looked primed to vault into the lead when Rebensburg, the last skier to go, was halfway through her second run. Rebensburg’s advantage was trimmed to .08, but the veteran made up six tenths in the last 30 seconds.

Shiffrin was also second after the first run of the previous giant slalom last month. But she made an uncharacteristic mistake in her second run and dropped to fifth place, .74 behind the resurgent Rebensburg.

Knowing that, Shiffrin was pleased with Saturday’s runner-up that matched her result in the first World Cup slalom two weeks ago.

“I was excited to put some risk on the hill,” Shiffrin said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “I’ve done a lot of races where I’m second place or first place in the first run and then I ended up falling back to fifth or sixth or past that. So it was really nice to know that I had gone for it, and it paid off.”

Italian Manuela Moelgg was third, 1.49 seconds behind. Full results are here.

Shiffrin, who finished fifth in the Sochi Olympic giant slalom, improved to silver behind Tessa Worley of France at last season’s worlds. Worley was sixth Saturday.

Rebensburg, who at 28 is six years older than Shiffrin, is challenging for Olympic GS favorite. She was third in the Sochi Olympic GS, then took silver at the 2015 Worlds before going 19 months between wins.

Shiffrin is still looking for her first win of the season, but she speaks in high spirits after a 2016-17 campaign that brought anxiety and led her to work with a sports psychologist.

Before Saturday’s race, Shiffrin was boosted by a fan’s Instagram message.

“We’re not hear to watch you win,” she told Shiffrin. “We’re here to support you. We’re just here to watch ski racing. We’re so excited, so we hope you don’t feel pressure from us.

“I read this message,” Shiffrin continued. “I was like, that made me feel so much better. So, to the fans out there who are writing direct messages, I do read them. And thank you.”

The women contest a slalom Sunday in Killington (broadcast schedule here), an anticipated head-to-head between Shiffrin and Vlhova.

The Slovakian emerged as the biggest slalom threat to Shiffrin since the American displaced Austrian Marlies Schild in the year before the Sochi Winter Games.

“The last Olympics, it’s almost like I forgot the Olympics were that season until February rolled around,” said Shiffrin, who wore new boots for Saturday’s race. “I’m trying to actually peak almost every single weekend when I’m doing slalom, GS, super-G and some downhill. It’s less of trying to have a huge peak for the Olympics and just sort of trying to peak every single race. The Olympics is included in that, which makes it a little bit easier in a way. I don’t have just one goal for the Olympics this year. I have a lot of goals that are equally as important to me.”

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MORE: Alpine skiing season TV schedule

Killington Giant Slalom
1. Viktoria Rebensburg (GER) — 1:57.63
2. Mikaela Shiffrin (USA) — .67
3. Manuela Moelgg (ITA) — 1.49
29. Megan McJames (USA) — 4.12

Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 19, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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