Mikaela Shiffrin’s dominance rarely seen in sports, let alone skiing

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Of Mikaela Shiffrin‘s incredible current streak — eight wins in nine World Cup races — perhaps Saturday’s giant slalom in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, stands out the most.

The 22-year-old caught an illness that affected other racers on the circuit. She vomited several times before winning that race, NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino said.

That wasn’t her only obstacle that day.

“It was set like a downhill,” Porino said of the second-run course set by a Swiss coach. Shiffrin was 21st-fastest of 30 skiers in the second run but won thanks to a .86 lead from the first run.

“It was all the things that she hates,” said Porino, a U.S. national team skier in the 1980s and ’90s. “All the things that was her kryptonite. Softer snow. Rough conditions. [Bad] light. 200 miles per hour. That’s not where she separates herself from the field. She still hung on to win. That particular race, to me, was wow. She is willing to accept the level of risk that I have not seen from her before.”

Before this streak began last month, Shiffrin was already the world’s best slalom skier. Already the reigning World Cup overall champion, the title associated with the best all-around skier.

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If the streak taught us anything, it’s that she has mastered her nerves, Porino said.

This was a problem last season, when Shiffrin revealed she threw up before several races (not because of sickness like last week but anxiety which led her to see a sports psychologist for the first time).

“I would always contend, based on not seeing it myself but talking to coaches, that she was so much faster in training than she was in race day, which is not something everyone wanted to talk about because she was winning anyway,” Porino said. “That component of nerves is part of every major victory she’s had, with the possible exception of the Olympic Games [in 2014].

“There’s a looseness to her skiing [now] that is particularly evident in giant slalom.”

Back to the streak. It begs the question — who are today’s most dominant athletes?

Look no further than men’s Alpine skiing for one of the best.

Austrian Marcel Hirscher has won six straight World Cup overall titles and might be peaking this season. He’s won seven of his last 10 World Cup starts despite breaking his left ankle in preseason training Aug. 17. Like Shiffrin, he is a slalom/giant slalom specialist who rarely starts downhill or super-G.

In other winter sports: Canadian Mikael Kingsbury has won 12 straight World Cup moguls events dating to last January.

Japanese speed skater Nao Kodaira (in the 500m) and Russian figure skater Yevgenia Medvedeva haven’t lost in the last two seasons.

MORE: Everything to know about Mikaela Shiffrin

Expand it even more.

Katie Ledecky. Boxer Claressa Shields (78-1). Ronaldo (four of the last five FIFA Player of the Year Awards). UFC pound-for-pound king Demetrious Johnson hasn’t lost in nearly six years.

Polish hammer thrower Anita Wlodarczyk has won 42 straight finals dating to 2014. She broke the world record four times in that span and produced the 14 best throws of all time, according to Tilastopaja.org and the IAAF.

Then there’s French judoka Teddy Riner, riding a 130-plus-match winning streak since 2010.

Those athletes don’t deal with the variables of Alpine skiing. Changing weather. Changing light. Courses set by rival coaches. Ruts.

The added obstacle in slalom is the straddle, hooking a ski around the wrong side of a gate for disqualification. It happens to everyone.

Shiffrin’s top rivals have either straddled or made a similar big mistake that knocked them completely out of contention between four and eight times in their last 50 World Cup slaloms.

Shiffrin has straddled once in her last 42 World Cup slaloms — on Jan. 3, 2017, in Zagreb, Croatia. She came back to Zagreb last week and won by 1.59 seconds.

“To [her coach’s] knowledge, she did not straddle from that day [last January] to when she showed up there again,” Porino said. “I don’t know how many runs of slalom that is, but I’m guessing that’s in the thousands [including training]. That’s ridiculous.

“She takes those little mistakes, and she dwells on them until it’s solved.”

MORE: Meet the U.S. Alpine ski team

Shiffrin has made the podium in 25 of her last 26 World Cup slaloms dating to December 2014.

Other skiers put up this kind of streak in one discipline before, but none in the last 20 years.

Ingemar Stenmark, the World Cup career wins leader with 86, made 37 straight giant slalom podiums during his heyday about 40 years ago, according to his International Ski Federation bio.

Swiss Vreni Schneider made 26 of 27 slalom podiums in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

One number has changed in that gap — miles per hour — which makes Shiffrin’s feat all the more impressive.

Bode [Miller] will say this, and I don’t totally disagree,” Porino said, “slalom now is performed at a substantially higher speed than it was performed when Stenmark was racing.”

The Olympics are in a month.

Shiffrin is a gold-medal favorite in the giant slalom and the slalom in the first week and the super combined (one run downhill + one run slalom) in the second.

Three golds would tie the Alpine record for a single Games. She’s expected to race the super-G, too, and possibly the downhill.

“If I can compete in four events, it’s because I think I have shot to win a medal in four events,” Shiffrin said before this season.

Porino is hesitant to echo Miller’s recent reported comments that Shiffrin may already be the best ski racer he’s ever seen.

She’s one of two to reach 41 World Cup wins before turning 23 years old, joining Austrian Annemarie Moser-Proell. Shiffrin turns 23 on March 13.

But look at Moser-Proell. She won her 41st race at age 21, then took a whole season off to care for her father before he died of lung cancer in 1976.

Moser-Proell returned and won another 21 races. Her last race was at age 26.

Give Shiffrin a few more years.

“She just hasn’t passed the test of time,” Porino said.

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MORE: Bode Miller: Shiffrin can win 5 medals, may be best ever already

Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week).

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

MORE: Wyomia Tyus’ Olympic protest resonates 52 years later

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NBA participation in Tokyo Olympics could be limited, Adam Silver says

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the Tokyo Olympics’ effect on the league’s schedule planning for 2021 is unclear, but that it’s possible that Olympic participation may be limited.

“There are a lot of great U.S. players, and we may be up against a scenario where the top 15 NBA players aren’t competing in the Olympics, but other great American players are competing,” Silver told Bob Costas on CNN on Tuesday. “Obviously, there are many NBA players who participate in the Olympics from other countries. That’s something we’re going to have to work through. I just say, lastly, these are highly unique and unusual circumstances. I think, just as it is for the Olympic movement, it is for us as well. We’re just going to have to sort of find a way to meld and mesh those two competing considerations.”

Silver said his best guess is that the next NBA season starts in January with a goal of a standard 82-game schedule and playoffs. A schedule has not been released.

In normal NBA seasons that start in late October, the regular season runs to mid-April and the NBA Finals into mid-June.

The Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony is July 23. If an NBA season is pushed back two or three months to a January start, and the schedule is not condensed, the Olympics would start while the NBA playoffs are happening.

The current NBA season is in the conference finals phase in an Orlando-area bubble after a four-month stoppage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a factor in our planning,” Silver said of the Olympics. “It would be tough for us to make a decision in January based on the Olympics happening on schedule when that’s so unclear.”

The NBA has participated in every Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games. Monday was the 29th anniversary of the announcement of the first 10 members of the original Dream Team on an NBC selection show (hosted by Costas).

Before the NBA era, U.S. Olympic men’s basketball teams consisted of college players.

MORE: When Michael Jordan lost in wheelchair basketball to Paralympian

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