U.S. Olympic team full of surprises, stars; what’s left for PyeongChang

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Nearly half of the U.S. Olympic team was named last week. After several surprises, a few more big names look to clinch their spots in the coming days.

NBC’s coverage of the PyeongChang Winter Games begins in exactly one month on Feb. 8.

Here’s a look at where the U.S. Olympic team stands:

It will end up including more than 200 athletes. One week ago, there were 44 qualified athletes.

Now, there are 127 qualified athletes (full list here), including the entire figure skating and speed skating teams, plus the bulk of the hockey teams.

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Key storylines from qualifiers so far:

Nathan Chen (figure skating): The only undefeated male singles skater this season won by a whopping 40 points at nationals with seven quadruple jumps between two programs. The 19-year-old will go up against Japanese stars Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno as the medal favorites in PyeongChang.

Bradie Tennell (figure skating): Largely an unknown a few months ago, Tennell leaned on consistent jumping to win her first U.S. title, one year after placing ninth at nationals. She is unquestionably the best U.S. woman, but an individual Olympic medal will be a tall ask. She ranks 14th in the world this season.

Adam Rippon and Mirai Nagasu (figure skating): These two veterans told incredible comeback stories to make the team. Rippon, at 28, is the oldest U.S. Olympic rookie singles skater since 1936. The only man to win two world junior titles waited eight years to make it to the Games. He barely qualified, being placed on the team over runner-up Ross Miner after placing fourth at nationals.

Nagasu won her first national title at age 14 in 2008. Then she finished fourth at the 2010 Olympics. She was third at the 2014 Nationals but left off that Olympic team for fourth-place Ashley Wagner. Nagasu wiped away the tears and added a new jump this season, becoming the second American after Tonya Harding to land a triple Axel in international competition. That move helped her get second at nationals and return to the Olympics.

Mikaela Shiffrin (Alpine skiing): Shiffrin became the youngest Olympic slalom champion in Sochi at age 18. She’s since blossomed into the world’s best all-around skier, including winning six of the last seven World Cup races. Shiffrin is now favored for three gold medals in PyeongChang, which would match the record for an Alpine skier at one Winter Games.

New-look hockey teams: The U.S. men’s hockey team includes no NHL players for the first time since 1994. That means a roster mixed with collegians, minor-leaguers and guys playing for European-league teams. The captain is Brian Gionta, the leading goal scorer on the 2006 Olympic team who is currently without a club team.

The U.S. women return 10 Olympians, but there are many changes from the team that lost to Canada in an overtime Olympic final four years ago. The new coach is 1990s NHL goalie Robb Stauber. All three goalies are rookie Olympians. The final two cuts were veterans from Sochi and several world championship teams.

Breaking barriers: Ghana-born 17-year-old Maame Biney is the first African-American woman to make an Olympic short track speed skating teamErin Jackson, a former roller derby skater, became the first African-American woman to make a long-track speed skating Olympic team, four months after picking up the sport full-timeJordan Greenway, a Boston College junior, is the first African-American hockey player to make the Olympic team.

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Athletes who surprisingly missed the Olympic team:

Ashley Wagner (figure skating): The three-time U.S. champion and 2016 World silver medalist finished fourth at the national championships last week. She was left off the three-woman Olympic team by a selection committee that didn’t feel she had strong enough results the past year to merit bumping one of the top three finishers from nationals.

Jason Brown (figure skating): The only man with Olympic experience at this year’s nationals had a disastrous free skate. Brown fell from third to sixth and out of the PyeongChang picture. The bubbly Brown was a sensation four years ago with his “Riverdance” free skate and was hoping to perform to the “Hamilton” soundtrack in South Korea.

Alex Carpenter (hockey): The last forward cut from the U.S. women’s hockey team. Carpenter, the daughter of longtime NHL forward Bobby Carpenter, led the U.S. with four goals in Sochi and scored the 2016 World Championship final game-winning goal in overtime against Canada. She played in the last four world championships.

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Remaining qualifying storylines:

Shaun White (snowboarding): The rest of the Olympic snowboarding team will be determined at qualifiers the next two weekends. White, the 2006 and 2010 halfpipe gold medalist, finished fourth in Sochi. Rededicated, he’s in strong position to automatically qualify at one of the last two qualifiers, despite needing 62 face stitches after a preseason crash. Even if he struggles, there is a safety net. The last spot on the team is chosen by a committee, and White certainly has a strong resume to state his case.

Lindsey Vonn (Alpine skiing): There’s no doubt the 33-year-old is going to PyeongChang. She can officially clinch her spot as early as this weekend with her first World Cup races since a holiday break. Known for crashing and winning, Vonn has done both this season and remains a favorite to become the oldest female Olympic Alpine medalist.

Gus Kenworthy (freestyle skiing): The world’s best freeskier hopes to make the Olympic team in both halfpipe and slopestyle (should be four men in each event). But it’s not an easy task. In slopestyle, Kenworthy is going up against two Olympic medalists (Joss Christensen and Nick Goepper), the world champion (McRae Williams) and another Sochi Olympian in Bobby Brown.

In halfpipe, Sochi gold medalist David WiseTorin Yater-Wallace and Alex Ferreira already have wins in qualifiers, and Winter X Games champ Aaron Blunck is also ahead of Kenworthy in the early qualifying standings.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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Mikaela Shiffrin runner-up in Lake Louise downhill

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LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) — Here’s a scary thought for her competition: Mikaela Shiffrin is still getting comfortable with the intensity and the speed of the downhill.

That’s why podium finishes are still a little surprising even to her.

The American three-time overall World Cup champion finished runner-up to Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria in a downhill race Saturday. Schmidhofer cruised through the course in 1 minute, 49.92 seconds to edge Shiffrin by 0.13 seconds. Francesca Marsaglia of Italy wound up third.

Schmidhofer has four career World Cup wins, with three of them arriving at Lake Louise.

Known as a tech specialist, Shiffrin is steadily getting up to speed in the speed events. This was Shiffrin’s fourth career World Cup podium finish in the downhill, which includes a Lake Louise win in 2017.

So, does Shiffrin anticipate this kind of downhill success?

“No, no, no,” the 24-year-old from Colorado said. “It’s certainly not normal (for a downhill podium). Even racing downhill doesn’t feel normal. But I feel every year like I have more experience and get more comfortable.”

Shiffrin currently sits at 62 World Cup wins, which ties her with Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell for second-most on the women’s side. Lindsey Vonn had 82 wins before her retirement.

“I’m certainly more comfortable with the long skis,” Shiffrin said of downhill racing. “Right now, it’s enjoying it, because speed is a little bit extra for me. My goal is to be able to succeed in speed as well. It’s making the transition and trying to have fun with it.”

Czech Republic skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka finished fourth Saturday. She was the surprise winner of Friday’s season-opening downhill, which was delayed and shortened by heavy snowfall on the mountain. The race Saturday was restored to its full length.

Next up, a super-G on Sunday.

“It’s always been a little bit tricky for me from downhill skis to super-G skis and to change the timing a little bit,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to have fun.”

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