Koreas’ combined women’s hockey team debuts in friendly

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INCHEON, South Korea (AP) — Wearing a powder-blue logo of a map symbolizing peace between the Koreas, the most talked-about team at this year’s Olympics finally saw game action Sunday in a friendly that drew thousands of spectators in a country that never previously showed much passion for ice hockey.

The North and South Korean women’s hockey players, who only began practicing together about a week ago as a combined team, showed plenty of fight in their first competitive test, crashing the boards and throwing their bodies to stop pucks and opponents, but never really threatened in a 3-1 loss to world No. 5 Sweden in Incheon, South Korea. The Koreans will play Sweden again on Feb. 12 during the Olympic tournament.

But the outcome didn’t seem to matter to the capacity crowd of 3,000 at the Seonhak International Ice Rink. Fans waved miniature white-and-blue flags showing a unified Korean Peninsula — the same mark on the players’ uniforms — and chanted “We are one” while screaming whenever the Koreans got on the break. The arena thunderously erupted when South Korean forward Park Jong-ah cut the deficit to 2-1 during the first period.

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The Korean players stood to the Korean traditional tune of “Arirang” at the start of the game, instead of their respective national anthems, and received warm applause as they left the arena after the contest.

“I think that the North Korean players played really well — this is one of the biggest crowds they played in front of,” said Sarah Murray, the joint team’s Canadian head coach. “Being added 12 days ago and not getting to practice together all that much, they played our system pretty well, so I am proud of them.”

The team’s North Korean coach, Pak Chol Ho, said the Koreas “can do anything if they do things as one.” He left the postgame news conference without taking questions.

The joint Koreas team highlights a series of conciliatory measures the war-separated rivals took for the Pyeongchang games, which South Korea sees as an opportunity to revive meaningful communication with North Korea following an extended period of animosity and diplomatic stalemate over the North’s nuclear program.

The Olympics begin Friday, with Pyeongchang, a relatively small South Korean ski resort town, hosting the skiing, snowboarding and sliding events, and Gangneung, a coastal city about an hour’s drive away, hosting the hockey, skating and curling events.

North Korea plans to send hundreds of people to the games, including athletes, officials, artists and a 230-member cheering group. Skeptics think the country is trying to use the games to weaken U.S.-led sanctions and pressure and buy more time to advance its nuclear weapons and missiles arsenal.

The decision to create the joint hockey team, which wasn’t reached until January, triggered heated debate in South Korea, where many people thought the South Korean players were being unfairly asked to sacrifice playing time to their North Korean teammates, who are seen as less skilled and experienced.

Murray, who coached South Korea before taking over the combined team, had also expressed concerns over team chemistry.

Sunday’s friendly was Murray’s only opportunity to experiment with potential lineups in game situations before the start of the Olympics. She previously said the North Koreans’ hard-hitting style would be suited for her fourth line, a group of players asked to provide physical play in short bursts while giving their teammates with greater scoring responsibilities a chance to rest.

But after seeing them in practice and now in game action, she sees potentially bigger roles for some of the North Koreans, including Jong Su Hyon, a forward who Murray says has broken onto her second line.

“They are eager to learn and get better,” Murray said about the North Koreans. “We have been having team meetings with them and they ask so many questions. The meeting’s supposed to be 15 minutes, and an hour later we are still talking and we are still watching video.”

The Korean players, at least on the surface, appear to be getting along. They arrived at the arena Sunday relaxed and playful, stretching and jumping in the hallway to get loose before gathering in a scrum and shouting “Team Korea!” Seven of the players later formed a circle and started kicking around a rubber ball, giggling whenever the ball bounced away from them.

Amid a heavy police presence, hundreds of supporters began gathering outside the stadium hours before the game despite the icy weather, including dozens who danced to music in matching white parkas and hoodies with the peninsula logo and shouted “Win, Korea!”

“I don’t even care about the results, I just want to cheer for them and see them work together and help each other out on the ice,” said Kim Hye-ryeon, 42, who brought her two children, 8 and 6, to the game.

Kim Won-jin, a 33-year-old who made a several-hour trip to the game with his wife and 3 1/2-year-old son from the city of Daejeon, hoped the Korean players had overcome any uneasiness they may have had over the distribution of playing time.

“If we ever get unified again, these young players of the South and North will be able to look back and be proud that what they did contributed to a historic change,” he said.

Not everyone was happy. Across the street from the arena, dozens of anti-Pyongyang activists glumly waved South Korean and U.S. flags to denounce what they said had become the “Pyongyang Olympics.” They roared as one of the protesters ripped the banner of the peninsula logo atop a van.

Mikaela Shiffrin, three gates from gold, skis out of world championships combined

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Mikaela Shiffrin was three gates from a record-tying seventh world championships gold medal when she lost her balance and straddled a gate, skiing out of the first race of worlds on Monday.

Italian Federica Brignone won the women’s combined instead, prevailing by 1.62 seconds over Swiss Wendy Holdener, the largest Olympic or world championships men’s or women’s margin of victory in the event since it switched from three runs to two in 2007.

Austrian Ricarda Haaser took bronze in an event that is one run of super-G followed by one run of slalom.

At 32, Brignone, the 2020 World Cup overall champion, won her first global title and became the oldest female world champion in any event.

“What was missing in my career was a gold medal,” she said. “So I’m old. No, I’m just kidding.”

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Shiffrin was sixth fastest in the opening super-G run, 96 hundredths behind Brignone. She skied aggressively in the slalom in a bid to beat Brignone. Shiffrin cut the gap to eight hundredths by the last intermediate split with about 10 seconds left on the course in Meribel, France.

Shiffrin looked set to overtake Brignone until tripping up slightly with five gates left. It compounded, and Shiffrin couldn’t save the run, losing control, straddling the third-to-last gate and skiing out. The timing system still registered her finish — 34 hundredths faster than Brignone — but it was quickly corrected to the obvious disqualification.

Asked on French TV if she lost focus, Shiffrin said, “People are going to say that no matter what.”

“The surface changed a little bit on these last gates, so [on pre-race] inspection I saw it’s a bit more unstable on the snow,” she added. “I tried to be aware of that, but I knew that if I had a chance to make up nine tenths on Federica, or more than that, like one second, I had to push like crazy. So I did, and I had a very good run. I’m really happy with my skiing.”

It marked Shiffrin’s first time skiing out since she did so in three races at last February’s Olympics, where her best individual finish was ninth in five races. At the Olympics, she skied out within the first 13 seconds in each instance. On Monday, she was more than 40 seconds into her run.

“I was thinking, now I’m going to go through the mixed zone. and everyone’s going to ask, ‘Oh, is this Beijing again?'” Shiffrin said. “I didn’t really think about that for myself, but more for the people asking. But I also said before, coming into this world champs multiple times, I’m not afraid if it happens again. What if I don’t finish every run? What happened last year, and I survived. And then I’ve had some pretty amazing races this season. So I would take the season that I’ve had with no medals at the world championships. If it’s either/or, then I would take that. I’m happy with it. But I’m going to be pushing for medals, because that’s what you do at world champs. You wear your heart on your sleeve, and you go for it. I’m not afraid of the consequences, as long as I have that mentality, which I had today.”

NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino said what happened Monday was “completely different” from the Olympics, calling it “an error of aggression.”

“It certainly wasn’t nerves that sent her out,” Porino said on the Peacock broadcast. “This was Shiffrin knowing that she had to have a huge run to get the gold medal.

“The way she went out this time, I think she can brush that one off.”

Shiffrin was bidding to tie the modern-era records for individual world championships gold medals (seven) and total medals (12). Coming into Monday, she earned a medal in her last 10 world championships races dating to 2015.

Her next chance to match those records comes in Wednesday’s super-G, where she is a medal contender. Norway’s Ragnhild Mowinckel is the world’s top-ranked super-G skier through five races on the World Cup this season, though she was 71 hundredths behind Brignone in Monday’s super-G run.

Shiffrin has raced two super-Gs this season with a win and a seventh place.

She is expected to race three more times over the two-week worlds, which is separate from the World Cup circuit that she has torn up this season.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup wins in 23 starts across all disciplines since November, moving her one shy of the career victories record of 86 accumulated by Swede Ingemar Stenmark in the 1970s and ’80s. Again, world championships races do not count toward the World Cup, which picks back up after worlds end in late February.

Worlds continue Tuesday with the men’s combined.

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Shaunae Miller-Uibo, Olympic 400m champion, announces pregnancy

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Bahamian Shaunae Miller-Uibo, the two-time reigning Olympic 400m champion, announced she is pregnant with her first child.

“New Year, New Blessing,” she posted on social media with husband Maicel Uibo, the 2019 World Championships silver medalist in the decathlon for Estonia. “We can’t wait to meet our little bundle of joy.”

Miller-Uibo’s agency said she plans to return to sprinting, but they don’t yet have a timeline of her plans.

Miller-Uibo, 28, followed her repeat Olympic title in Tokyo by winning her first world indoor and outdoor titles last year.

Also last year, Miller-Uibo said she planned to drop the 400m and focus on the 200m going into the 2024 Paris Games rather than possibly bid to become the first woman to win the same individual Olympic running event three times.

She has plenty of experience in the 200m, making her world championships debut in that event in 2013 and placing fourth. She earned 200m bronze at the 2017 Worlds, was the world’s fastest woman in the event in 2019 and petitioned for a Tokyo Olympic schedule change to make a 200m-400m double easier. The petition was unsuccessful.

She did both races anyway, finishing last in the 200m final, 1.7 seconds behind the penultimate finisher on the same day of the 400m first round.

She did not race the 200m at last July’s worlds, where the 200m and 400m overlapped.

Notable moms to win individual Olympic sprint titles include American Wilma Rudolph, who swept the 100m, 200m and 4x100m at the 1960 Rome Olympics two years after having daughter Yolanda.

And Dutchwoman Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won four gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics, when the mother of two also held world records in the high jump and long jump, two events in which she didn’t compete at those Games.

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