Julia Mancuso retires, joins NBC Olympics for PyeongChang

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Julia Mancuso, the most decorated female U.S. Olympic skier with four medals, ended her bid for a record fifth Olympics and is retiring after a victory lap in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, on Friday.

Mancuso, 33, could not fully come back from right hip surgery that kept her out the previous two full seasons.

She raced three times this season without cracking the top 40.

Mancuso would have had one last chance to prove she deserved a PyeongChang Olympic place at a World Cup stop in Cortina this weekend.

Instead, she’s calling it a career now.

She will still go to PyeongChang, as a reporter for NBC Olympics and for “The Olympic Zone,” the nightly 30-minute show that airs on NBC affiliates.

“It has been an epic battle with my hip injury, and the past three years I have put everything into returning to competition at the highest level and the goal to reach my fifth Olympic Games,” Mancuso said in a U.S. Ski & Snowboard press release. “There have been really promising days during this challenging process, and I have kept my spirits up despite many who questioned or doubted me. Sadly, I haven’t found the progression to compete with the best in the world again, but I’m proud to have fought until the very end. It is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to ski racing, but I do so with a full heart.”

Mancuso made her name as a big-event racer.

She reached 36 podiums in 398 World Cup starts (nine percent) but earned nine medals in 40 Olympic and world championships starts (23 percent).

“I don’t think that I was ever looked at as the favorite,” Mancuso said.

No upset win was bigger than the 2006 Olympic giant slalom in Sestriere, Italy.

Mancuso battled driving snow and poor visibility to take gold, having never before won a World Cup or world championships race (but with five world junior titles and two 2005 World bronze medals). She stayed up late the previous night watching women’s figure skating on TV while eating Pop Tarts.

At the medal ceremony, the free spirit donned a plastic tiara, a gift presented by coaches at a team dinner. She also wore the tiara in place of a helmet for a slalom run in the combined event.

“Oh my God, I just won the Olympics,” Mancuso told teammate Stacey Cook immediately after winning, reportedly adding to media an hour later as Olympic champion, “You can’t imagine how weird it is to say that out loud.”

Mancuso had some lean seasons on the World Cup in the next two Olympic cycles, yet surprised for downhill and super combined silver medals in 2010 and another super combined bronze in 2014.

Mancuso, along with Lindsey VonnBode Miller and Ted Ligety, was part of a golden generation of U.S. Alpine skiing. At least one of the four won a medal at every Olympics and world championships since 2002.

Now Miller and Mancuso have retired, and Vonn and Ligety are likely going to their last Olympics in PyeongChang.

Vonn, who skied with Mancuso since they were 9 years old, was in tears saying goodbye to her longtime (and not always friendly) rival.

“She’s not there anymore,” said Vonn, who finished second in Friday’s race. “It makes me realize how long we’ve been doing this, and how many great memories we have together. I honestly think that we’re both in the position that we’re in because we were growing up together, because we pushed each other. We weren’t always the best of friends. We’re very different. We’re exact opposites. She’s like free, let’s go surfing. I’m like hardcore, always focused all the time. We haven’t always been very close, but because of each other, because we were on the team together, because we pushed each other, we both achieved a level of success that I don’t think we would have had without each other. I have a lot of my career to thank for Julia. I am very sad to see her go.”

Mancuso bid this year to join cross-country skier Kikkan Randall and (very likely) snowboarder Kelly Clark as the first U.S. woman to compete in five Winter Olympics.

Mancuso also would have been the second-oldest U.S. Olympic Alpine skier ever after Miller, the only American skier with more Olympic medals than Mancuso’s four.

Hip problems resulting from a birth condition kept that from happening.

Mancuso has hip dysplasia, a misalignment of bones that causes the joint to deteriorate faster than normal.

When Mancuso was 18 years old, a doctor said she needed to choose between ski racing (Mancuso had already been to an Olympics at age 17 in 2002) or living a healthy life.

“I left crying and never went back to that doctor,” she said.

Mancuso underwent surgery after that 2006 Olympic title. The pain returned and, by 2015, became unbearable.

She underwent another hip surgery, this one much more complicated. The operation fixed cartilage damage, cleaned up bone spurs and put more anchors in her labrum because of a slight tear with doctors warning that her hip would probably be 90 percent of what it was, according to The Associated Press.

Mancuso spent six months on crutches. She hoped to return to racing last season but was limited to being a forerunner.

Again, this season, she delayed her comeback and never was able to race at the level she wanted.

“It’s really hard for me to walk normally,” Mancuso said in April. “A lot of people ask me why I’m doing it [skiing], because I can’t even walk. Why would I ski? The truth is, skiing is way easier. Skiing is fun because it is easy, and my body loves it. My body loves to ski, and my body needs to ski. … It improves my quality of life.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Today will be my last race. I have lots of fun photos, and I'm sure there will plenty more today (watch the race!) bib 31 🙂 but I think this one says it all. I stood proud and tall in this years Olympic Uniform. I believed anything would be possible, and this journey shooting for the moon, left me with many bright stars. 💫 so here you go! It has been an epic battle with my hip injury, and the past 3 years I have put everything into returning to competition at the highest level and the goal to reach my 5th olympics. There have been really promising days during this challenging process and I have kept my spirits up despite many who questioned and doubted me. Sadly I haven’t found the progression to compete with the best in world again but I’m proud to have fought until the very end. It is with a heavy heart I have to say goodbye to ski racing, but I do so also with a very Full heart. I'm so grateful for all of the incredible opportunities I've been provided and the amazing friendships I've formed along the way. Thank you to my family, sponsors and my team for believing in me, my doctors, fans and especially my husband who has supported me through these difficult times. I'm happy that I get to ski my last race here in Cortina – one of my favorite stops on tour. I had my first podium here, and now I get to say farewell. I’m excited to see where skiing and life’s adventure will take me next! Thank you @spyderactive @pocsports @stockli_1935 @kttape @gopro @squawalpine @swix_sport @lesserevilsnacks @hiballenergy @usskiteam @lange_boots

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Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue can make it 10 straight at Skate America

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If Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue ever lacked motivation in the post-Olympic summer, they needed only scan their Montreal training ice.

They would spot France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the only ice dancers from the Olympic podium who return this season. Papadakis and Cizeron relegated the Americans to silver at March’s world championships, one month after Hubbell and Donohue were fourth in PyeongChang (the French took silver). They have trained under the same coaches in Quebec for three years.

They would also see Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, the third- and fourth-place finishers from January’s U.S. Championships. Those couples moved to the Montreal group in the spring. They are Hubbell and Donohue’s top threats to repeat as national champions in Detroit in three months, given U.S. silver medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are also taking a break.

Practicing next to rivals is often shunned in sports. It has elevated ice dance the last several years.

Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White trained together in Michigan and split the Olympic gold and silver medals in 2010 and 2014.

When Virtue and Moir returned from a two-year break in 2016, they joined the Montreal group and went one-two with training partners Papadakis and Cizeron at every major competition through PyeongChang.

Hubbell and Donohue thrived last season, their third in Montreal, winning their first national title after six straight years of finishing third or fourth. They were in position for an Olympic medal, third after the short dance, but Donohue fell in the free dance (as he did at 2017 Worlds after they were third in the short).

Then at worlds in March, they delivered back-to-back podium-worthy performances on the global stage for the first time for that silver medal. They are the world No. 2 and the favorites at this weekend’s Skate America, with the French not in the field.

U.S. couples have won nine straight Skate Americas, more than the other three disciplines combined in the last decade.

MORE: Skate America TV/Stream Schedule

“Clearly this formula is working for them,” NBC Sports analyst and 2006 Olympic ice dance silver medalist Tanith White said. “It has proven to work for many of the greatest teams in ice dance over the last few decades. … I cannot see a drawback.”

Hubbell and Donohue (and Papadakis and Cizeron) appear to agree.

They joked back and forth at a press conference after worlds in March. Asked how they would spend the offseason, Cizeron looked straight at Hubbell and Donohue and said, jokingly, “Our goal is to get drunk together as many times as we can.”

“As much as our own personal accomplishment is pretty incredible, being on the podium with training mates and having, literally, everyone from our training center skate the best programs of their season, all at the same competition, was pretty incredible,” Donohue said last week.

Hubbell and Donohue should breeze through Skate America in Everett, Wash. Nobody else from the top nine in PyeongChang is in the field. They’re the favorites next week at Skate Canada, too.

The first real test will be at December’s Grand Prix Final, where Papadakis and Cizeron should join them. Hubbell and Donohue never outscored the French in nine head-to-head competitions and were more than 10 points adrift at worlds.

“The French, where they left off last season, I think that they are still in a category on their own based on the last time we saw those two teams go up against each other,” White said. 

Hubbell said the world silver medal showed that they had tackled their demons, fear and history of errors. If the next goal is gold, they must conquer a much more visible foe, one they see every day on the ice.

“The podium at worlds,” Hubbell said, “was the moment I was able to leave that season behind me and go into the future.”

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NHL helped end USA Hockey, women’s national team wage dispute

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The NHL’s support of women’s hockey included the league stepping in at the last moment to end a wage dispute between USA Hockey and national team players threatening to boycott the 2017 World Championship on home ice.

Two people familiar with the situation said the NHL agreed to pay USA Hockey to help fund the four-year agreement reached in March 2017. The people spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the league and USA Hockey have not made that information public.

The NHL also supports the idea of one women’s professional league and has several member teams involved in both leagues.

The Buffalo Sabres purchased the Buffalo Beauts in December to become the NHL’s first franchise to fully own an National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) team. The Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens each have partnerships with Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) teams based in their respective cities.

The NHL has been careful to avoid the appearance of favoring one league over the other. Commissioner Gary Bettman told the AP last month he has no interest in forming a third league because he doesn’t want the NHL “to look like a bully” by pushing the existing leagues out of business.

Players want a single North American women’s professional hockey league. Bettman does, too. And now NWHL founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan is on record saying she is working toward that objective.

“One league is inevitable,” Rylan wrote in an email to the AP, her strongest statement regarding a potential merger with the rival CWHL.

Rylan’s comments come nearly four years after she split from the CWHL to establish the NWHL, which became the first women’s hockey league to pay its players a salary.

The investor-funded NWHL has provided a framework for how a pro women’s league can function, but most observers agree that two leagues competing for the same talent pool and limited financial resources isn’t going to last — or help the game grow.

The U.S.-based NWHL, in its fourth season, grew to five teams after expanding into Minnesota this year. The CWHL, in its 12th season, began paying its players a salary for the first time last year and has six teams, including ones in Worcester, Massachusetts, and China.

Rylan is now echoing what Jayna Hefford said in July upon being named the CWHL’s interim commissioner. The former Canadian star called the formation of one league “a priority” and projected it could happen within two years.

Rylan’s comments also come after both leagues discussed merger options this summer, a person with direct knowledge of the discussions told The AP. Also on the table is an NWHL proposal for both league champions to compete in an end-of-season playoff, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Rylan confirmed she’s spoken to Hefford, and added: “There is a path, and Jayna and I and our business partners will continue those discussions.”

Hefford expressed cautious optimism regarding the possibility of joining forces.

“It’s certainly something we have to figure out,” she said, while noting she’s still new on the job. “I’m trying to understand what the challenges are, what the roadblocks are and try to figure out a way to get us to the point where we have one truly professional women’s hockey league.”

Hefford was scheduled to meet this week with NHL officials, including Bettman, for the first time since replacing former commissioner Brenda Andress.

Bettman is hesitant of the NHL assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL because, as he put it, “we don’t believe in their models.”

“We need to start on a clean slate,” Bettman said.

“If at some point the leagues say, ‘We’ve had enough, we don’t see this as a long-term solution, we’d like you to start up and we’ll discontinue operations,’ then we’ll do it. But we’re not pushing it,” he said. “If we’re going to get involved, it cannot fail, which means it has to be on us.”

Rylan, who previously worked at the NHL, took exception to the comments.

“What’s it like when Gary Bettman tells the media the model for our women’s league doesn’t work? Of course, it’s really disappointing,” said Rylan, who nonetheless called Bettman a “gracious adviser.”

“Can we improve? No question about it,” she added. “If Gary and more NHL owners want to get involved in women’s hockey, that’s an awesome an exciting thing. Let’s get started now.”

Hayley Wickenheiser, a retired six-time Olympian and newly hired Maple Leafs assistant director of player development, said, “I think the NHL should and could do more and in a heartbeat make it happen.” But she placed more of an onus on the players to make it happen.

“They need to take control and move it forward, and the NHL is there and ready when they are,” said Wickenheiser, the first woman to be hired to a hockey operations role.

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