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U.S. women’s hockey players in tears after legend’s surprise

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About three months ago, the U.S. women’s hockey team took a bonding trip to Nike’s headquarters.

One of those nights in Oregon, after a day full of training and meetings, players had just finished dinner and gathered in the team hotel for what they thought was one last debrief before bed.

Some staff members started talking generally about legacy. Cammi Granato entered the room.

No introduction was necessary. Granato received a standing ovation.

“I was in tears, actually,” said Meghan Duggan, one of four women who have captained the U.S. at the Olympics (Granato, Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz are the others).

Duggan, who has been on the national team for a decade, had never met Granato.

“It wasn’t like she stood up at a podium and delivered a speech to us,” Duggan said. “She just kind of sat and talked to us about her experience.”

The surprise appearance was the latest motivational move from the mind of Reagan Carey, director of the U.S. women’s program since 2010.

It was Carey who in 2013 put together a reported 90-page hardcover book with contributed words and photos from all 41 previous U.S. Olympic players. Carey had three of the 41 hand copies to every 2014 Olympic team member the day they left for Sochi.

Carey has brought in several guest speakers — from Julie Foudy to retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, one of five soldiers from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to survive a quadruple amputation.

“We’re really lucky to have a woman like Reagan at the helm of the ship,” forward Hilary Knight said.

Granato has delivered video messages to the team before, but this was her first in-person address. Now 46, Granato lives with her family in Vancouver. (One of Granato’s four brothers, retired NHL All-Star Tony Granatowill coach the U.S. men in PyeongChang.)

“One of the things that stuck with me the most she said was, when you think about the Olympics and the gold-medal game, how big that is and you’re on the world stage, nerves come into play,” said Duggan, a member of the teams that lost gold-medal games to Canada in 2010 and 2014. “You think, oh my gosh, I have to play the best game of my life. Really, what she said was you have to play the team game. Play like you’ve played all year. Play the systems. Play the way that you need to play. Bring your role to the team. Not every single person on the team has to have the best game of their lives.”

Granato spent an hour with women who idolized her that night and joined them for team activities the next day.

“It was almost like she was back in the locker room,” Carey said. “Just a different team.”

Knight, arguably the world’s best player, wears No. 21 in honor of Granato. They are the only U.S. women to wear No. 21 at the Olympics.

Knight has a hockey stick autographed by Granato from when she attended a youth camp. This time, she had Granato sign her journal.

“So I have to hold it pretty closely now,” Knight said.

Forward Brianna Decker had not seen the Hall of Famer since Granato was her coach at an early teen development camp.

“I got the chills,” Decker said. “The greatest player in women’s hockey, I believe, of all time. She was there, right in front of us, sharing her experience.”

As Knight summarized, Granato told the team “this is how we did it” in 1998.

The U.S. won the first Olympic women’s hockey gold medal in Nagano, with Granato the captain and face of the program. They haven’t won any since, losing three times to Canada in the final.

“[Granato] talked about team chemistry, team bonding, generally enjoying the moments together,” Decker said. “She could tell with our group, just by talking to us, that we have that bond and that special unique bond between all of us that can’t be really broken.”

This year’s national team has lived together in residency in Wesley Chapel, Fla, for the last few months. Their next game is Sunday against Canada (NBCSN, 4 p.m. ET), one of eight matchups with their rivals before PyeongChang.

The U.S. has to be considered the Olympic favorite, having won all three world championships since a gut-wrenching overtime loss in the Sochi final.

Maybe that’s why Granato chose not to bring her gold medal to that meeting in Oregon.

“I don’t think any of us would have touched it anyways,” defenseman Monique Lamoureux-Morando said.

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Penny Oleksiak edges Simone Manuel, Regan Smith sizzles again in Knoxville

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Penny Oleksiak and Simone Manuel nearly duplicated their Olympic gold-medal tie. The Canadian Oleksiak edged Manuel by .03 in the 100m freestyle at a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., on Sunday night.

Oleksiak clocked 53.41 seconds, coming back from .37 behind Manuel at the 50-meter mark. The two tied for the Rio Olympic title in an Olympic record 52.70 seconds four years ago. Oleksiak was the surprise, a 16-year-old who came into the Games ranked eighth in the world for the year.

Since, Manuel swept the 2017 and 2019 World titles. Oleksiak was sixth at 2017 Worlds and withdrew before the 100m free at 2019 Worlds. She ranked 21st in the world last year. Oleksiak’s time Sunday was her fastest since 2017.

Full Knoxville meet results are here. The Pro Series’ next stop is Des Moines from March 4-7.

In other events Sunday, world-record holder Regan Smith won the 200m backstroke in 2:05.94, the fastest time ever outside of a national championships or major international meet. Smith, 17, achieved the same feat on Saturday in the 100m back, where she also broke the world record at last summer’s worlds.

Madisyn Cox won a matchup of the three fastest U.S. women in the 200m individual medley in 2019. She clocked 2:09.88, beating Alex Walsh by a half-second and Melanie Margalis by .54.

It was Cox’s fastest time since she took bronze at the 2017 World Championships. She missed the 2019 Worlds after failing a 2018 drug test over what she said was a contaminated multivitamin.

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Mikaela Shiffrin among favorites eliminated early in parallel giant slalom

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Mikaela Shiffrin was upset in the round of 16 of the first World Cup parallel giant slalom by unheralded Frenchwoman Clara Direz, who went on to earn her first win on Sunday.

Shiffrin had the fastest qualifying time but was bounced in the second round of head-to-head racing in Sestriere by Direz. Direz, 24, came into the day with a best career finish of seventh.

Direz was 16th-fastest in qualifying, 1.02 seconds behind Shiffrin combining times from two runs. Direz edged Shiffrin by .13 in their head-to-head run. Shiffrin appeared to be at a disadvantage being put on the red course, which produced just three winners among 20 one-run matchups.

“It is fun; I think I like the parallel GS actually more than the parallel slalom, but it’s a little bit difficult,” Shiffrin said. “I think there’s still a lot of work we have to do, and FIS [the International Ski Federation] has to do to really make the race as even as it can be because for sure you can see, there’s always a faster course. But today it’s like they’re not even the same course at all. Especially in the last four, five gates on the blue course, you can even see just looking up the hill that it’s straighter than the red course.

“Today I would say it’s a day where the luck [of which course you draw randomly] really plays a role.”

Direz eventually beat Austrian Elisa Moerzinger in the final. Direz was on the blue course for three of her four one-run rounds. Full results are here.

Higher-ranked racers used to be have their choice of courses in the parallel format.

“Maybe that wasn’t fair, either, but I think there must be a way to make it something that is more even, but at the same time, yeah, I don’t really have the answers on how to do that, either,” Shiffrin said. “It’s still in its infancy, this event.”

Shiffrin has a track record of success in parallel slaloms and similar city events, winning five of her last six starts. But the parallel GS proved problematic for the world’s best in slalom.

Swiss Wendy Holdener and Slovakian Petra Vlhova were also eliminated before the quarterfinals after being second- and third-fastest in qualifying. Holdener was also on the red course. Vlhova lost in the round of 32, when skiers were taking runs on both the blue and red courses.

Sestriere marked the last weekend of technical races (slaloms/giant slaloms) until mid-February. The next three weekends feature downhills and super-Gs. Shiffrin is expected to travel to Bansko, Bulgaria, for the first set on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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